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Is Carbon Dioxide from Fossil Fuel Changing Man’s Environment?

Article Link

Keeling, Charles D. 1970. Is Carbon Dioxide from Fossil Fuel Changing Man’s Environment? Proc. American Philosophical Society 114, no. 1, 10-17.

Essay about this article

As part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, Harry Wexler, Chief of Scientific Services at the U. S. Weather Bureau, succeeded in establishing a series of accurate measurements of the background concentration of carbon dioxide using infrared gas analyzers. He provided initial funding for samples to be taken in Antarctica and elsewhere, including a permanent station at the Mauna Loa Observatory “to keep a continuous record of CO2.” Wexler offered Charles David Keeling, then a young research chemist, the chance to work on this problem either in cramped quarters in Washington, DC or with better facilities (and ambience) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Keeling opted for Scripps. As Keeling recalled two decades later:

The first unmistakable evidence of atmospheric CO2 increase was furnished by continuous measurements made at [the Mauna Loa Observatory] and by measurements of flask samples collected periodically at the South Pole. These data, obtained in connection with the [IGY], were precise enough to indicate a rise in concentration in 1959 when compared with the results of the previous year. Further measurements have shown a persistent year-to-year increase (Keeling, 1978).

Since then, the Keeling curve, the famous saw-toothed curve of secularly rising CO2 concentrations, has become an environmental icon and proof of humanity’s influence on the global atmosphere.

In 1970 Keeling presented a summary of more than a decade of carbon dioxide measurements and issued a clear warning about humanity’s influence on future climate. He cited his mentor at Scripps, Roger Revelle, on the possible “significant effect on climate” of elevated levels of carbon dioxide (PSAC, 1965). Keeling described his basic experimental apparatus to collect an air sample, remove its moisture, and determine its CO2 concentration using an infrared analyzer. He discussed anomalies in the data and how they were smoothed out by longer-term trends, which clearly demonstrated both seasonal variations and a clear upward trend in carbon dioxide concentrations. He was critical of the current state of climate modeling, which was still lacking in accurate representations of clouds and oceans, but ventured to issue a prediction of a warmer future world with elevated levels of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere.

Waxing philosophical in his concern for the environment (after all he was addressing the American Philosophical Society), Keeling warned of world population increases and increasing consumption of fossil fuel. He pointed to a coming future peak in world oil production and the likelihood that climate change caused by the anthropogenic greenhouse effect will be a serious problem.

Keeling expected a slow response to these emerging problems and predicted that the next generation (the college students of 1970) might be the first to feel such strong concern for humanity’s future that they organize to take effective action. He concluded that thirty years from now (in the year 2000), if present trends are any sign, the world will be in greater immediate danger than it is today, and immediate corrective measures, if such exist, will be closer at hand.

Discussion Questions

a. What is the Keeling Curve and why is it considered an icon of environmental awareness?

b. Discuss the annual and secular changes in background atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since 1958 and projections for the future.

c. What was Keeling’s basic technique to measure carbon dioxide and how accurate is it?


Keeling, C.D., 1960. The concentration and isotopic abundances of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tellus 12, 200–203. Keeling, C.D., 1978. The influence of Mauna Loa Observatory on the development of atmospheric CO2 research. Mauna Loa Observatory: A 20th Anniversary Report, John Miller, ed. Washington, DC, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Special Report, 36–54. Keeling, C. D., 1998. Rewards and penalties of monitoring the Earth. Ann. Rev. Energy Environ. 23, 25-82. President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), 1965. Restoring the Quality of Our Environment. Report of the Environmental Pollution Panel. Washington, DC: The White House.

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Select articles citing this paper

Rebello, A. D. and I. N. S. Moreira (1984). "CO2/SEAWATER INTERACTION - MODEL EXPERIMENTS." Anais Da Academia Brasileira De Ciencias 56(3): 241-246.

Ward, S. M., J. Braslaw, et al. (1983). "CARBON-DIOXIDE SORPTION STUDIES ON MAGNESIUM-OXIDE." Thermochimica Acta 64(1-2): 107-114.

Verma, S. B. and N. J. Rosenberg (1976). "CARBON-DIOXIDE CONCENTRATION AND FLUX IN A LARGE AGRICULTURAL REGION OF GREAT-PLAINS OF NORTH-AMERICA." Journal of Geophysical Research-Oceans and Atmospheres 81(3): 399-405.

Hurt, P. and R. Wright (1976). "CO2 COMPENSATION POINT FOR PHOTOSYNTHESIS - EFFECT OF VARIABLE CO2 AND SOIL-MOISTURE LEVELS." American Midland Naturalist 95(2): 450-455.


Bach, W. (1976). "GLOBAL AIR-POLLUTION AND CLIMATIC CHANGE." Reviews of Geophysics 14(3): 429-474.

Wright, R. D. (1974). "RISING ATMOSPHERIC CO2 AND PHOTOSYNTHESIS OF SAN-BERNARDINO MOUNTAIN PLANTS." American Midland Naturalist 91(2): 360-370.


Woodwell, G. M., R. A. Houghton, et al. (1973). "ATMOSPHERIC CO2 AT BROOKHAVEN, LONG-ISLAND, NEW-YORK - PATTERNS OF VARIATION UP TO 125 METERS." Journal of Geophysical Research 78(6): 932-940.

Badger, G. M. (1973). "QUALITY OF AIR - STUDY OF POLLUTION." Search 4(3): 58-65.

Miller, J. M. and R. G. D. Pena (1972). "CONTRIBUTION OF SCAVENGED SULFUR-DIOXIDE TO SULFATE CONTENT OF RAIN WATER." Journal of Geophysical Research 77(30): 5905-&.

Munn, R. E. and B. Bolin (1971). "GLOBAL AIR POLLUTION - METEOROLOGICAL ASPECTS." Atmospheric Environment 5(6): 363-&.

Lemon, E., D. W. Stewart, et al. (1971). "SUNS WORK IN A CORNFIELD." Science 174(4007): 371-&.

Bolin, B. (1970). "CARBON CYCLE." Scientific American 223(3): 124-&.

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