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Budget Cuts Could Shut Down the Carbon Dioxide Monitors That First Warned of Global Warming

The monitoring program that gave us Keeling's Curve is facing the axe as budgets are cut

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The Mauna Loa Observatory where Keeling’s observations are made. Photo: NOAA

In 1958, a young researcher named Charles David Keeling kicked off a project to systematically study the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. From his monitoring site on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, Keeling provided observations that showed, for the first time, a steady rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide— the first real warning of modern global warming. But now, says Nature, the project that gave us Keeling’s iconic curve is facing its end as budgets are cut across the board.

Keeling’s project, despite its now-recognized importance, never saw much financial stability. As Smart News has written before, Keeling did a great deal of cobbling funding sources together to keep the data flowing. But, says Ralph Keeling, who took over the project from his father, “Things have never been this dire before.”

Keeling’s project was once funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but those funds seem to be running dry.

“NOAA’s budget is getting hammered, and it’s increasingly difficult to fund things like Ralph’s programme,” Butler says. “All I can do right now is provide moral support to keep it going year by year until we come up with a plan.”

There are, of course, more monitoring stations now tracking the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide than just Keeling’s. But there is more reason than just nostalgia to keep the Mauna Loa observations going. In science, it really does help to have long, reliable, unbroken records. Consistent observations help you sort out if the weird blip or change in pace you’re seeing is a real thing, or if it’s just a quirk in your apparatus. When it comes to carbon dioxide monitoring, there’s no record longer than Keeling’s.

As the world keeping pumping out more carbon dioxide—this year set a new record for carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels—and locking us in to ever-more global warming, these observation programs become more, not less, important.

More from Smithsonian.com:

2012 Saw the Second Highest Carbon Emissions in Half a Century 

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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