Climate Change and Greenhouse Gases

David Skinner M.A.      Academy For Future Science

According to a report released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2015, carbon dioxide is the number one greenhouse gas (GHG), and reportedly accounts for over 65% of the world’s carbon emissions.[1] Greenhouses gases trap the heat from the solar radiation reflected off the surface of the earth in its atmosphere resulting in rising temperatures.

Most climate scientists acknowledge that the higher the concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere the more heat is trapped, resulting in higher temperatures that push the global average temperature upward. Carbon dioxide released today from burning fossil fuels takes about ten years to reach its maximum heat trapping potential and remains in the atmosphere for well over 100 years.

Because carbon dioxide is the largest percentage of all greenhouse gases, its concentration in the atmosphere measured in ppm (parts per million) is used as the standard for all GHG concentrations. Scientists have been able to construct continuously reliable CO2 concentrations from ice core samples dating back 800,000 years.


In an article posted on NOAA’s website Rebecca Lindsey noted that the last time CO2 levels were at the 2017 record level of 405 ppm, “was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today. “[2]

Emissions from fossil fuels and cement production account for almost 70% of all greenhouse gases. After three years of relatively stable carbon emissions, 2017 saw a 2% worldwide increase to 37 billion tons of CO2. The rise in carbon emissions has been attributed to increased economic activity in China, which relies heavily on coal for electrical power generation and a decrease in hydro-electric power from declining rainfall. India’s increased economic activity and its continual reliance on coal also played a role but to a lesser extent.

The other GHG emissions of major concern are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases. Methane emissions are generated as a byproduct of the production of fossil fuels, the decay of organic matter, livestock flatulence and other agricultural operations. It is of major concern to climate scientists because of its ability to trap “up to 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within a 5-year period and 72 times more within a 20-year period.”[3] While it does not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, one of the chemical components it breaks down into is CO2. Nitrous oxide is also a more potent heat trapping GHG than CO2. It is most commonly found in smog from vehicle tailpipe emissions.

Some scientists take into consideration solar and planetary cyclic changes as part of climate change. However, those who focus on anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) look at human activity as the primary cause of global warming. They see trends that date to the start of the industrialization of Europe’s economy beginning around 1750.[4]

Industrialization was made possible by the burning of fossil fuels beginning with coal and later moving to oil and natural gas as they became more readily available, less expensive and/or less polluting. Prior to this time, concentrations of CO2 and CH4 had never exceeded 280 ppm and 1,770 ppb (parts per billion) respectively. As of December 2017, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 406.77 ppm and the concentration of methane was 1,859.6 ppb[5].

Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory has been tracking carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere since 1958 where CO2 levels were measured at 315 ppm. It just announced that it measured 410 ppm at the end of April 2018.

“At the recent pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm in a mere 16 years, and 500 ppm 20 years after that. That’s well within dangerous territory for the climate system,” said Ralph Keeling, head of the Scripps CO2 program. He added, passing 410 ppm “is important because it punctuates another milestone in the upwards march of CO2.”[6]


Global%20Warm:Earth%20Changes/Pics,%20Graphics/CO2%20Emissions.jpg Since 1750, it is estimated human activity has generated 2,000 gigatons (billions of tons) of CO2 emissions. The oceans have absorbed 30% (mainly in the top layers), the soil and plants 26%, and the remaining 44% remains in the atmosphere warming the air, our oceans and the land masses of the planet.[7]

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) notes that warming is not uniform worldwide. Some areas of the planet have cooled slightly over the last century, while North American and Eurasia have experienced the highest warming recently. It is important to note the IPCC is measuring a global average temperature and that within this measurement temperature variants do occur.

Global warming is the increase in global average temperature as a result of higher concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere, trapping increasing amounts of heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. We have surpassed the Earth’s natural ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere known as its carbon cycle. Climate change is the Earth’s response to the warming of the land and its oceans. Climate scientists are now seeing climate change feedback loops that are reinforcing and speeding up the impacts of global warming.

Rising Temperatures


Climate news headlines continue to highlight temperature changes worldwide and their impacts. Consider the following:

  • 2017 Broke Another Heat Record—but There’s Hope for Future Years [Futurism, Jan. 2, 2018]
  • The IPCC May Have Underestimated Future Warming Trends [Futurism, Dec. 7, 2017]
  • Rise in severity of hottest days outpaces global average temperature increase [UCI News, Jan. 24, 2018]
  • Global temperature could pass limit set by Paris climate deal within 5 years [USA Today, Feb. 1, 2018]
  • Earth Will Start Becoming a Desert by 2050 if Global Warming Isn’t Stopped, Study Says [Newsweek, Jan. 2, 2018]

The hottest year on record for the Earth was 2016 according to a NOAA international climate report released in August 2017. It was the third year in a row of record breaking global temperatures. A new temperature record was set at the close of 2017, the second hottest year ever recorded and the first not influenced by an El Niño weather event.

Credit: NOAA: National Centers for Environmental Information

On February 25, 2018, temperatures at the North Pole and across thousands of square miles of arctic tundra rose above freezing. Such temperatures are not seen until May. In northern Greenland, it was 6oC (43oF) on February 23 where average temperatures are normally -29oC (-20oF) for the month.

In May and June 2017, a heatwave described as “historic” swept across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. For one day in May, temperatures in Turbal, Pakistan hit a planetary record high of 53.3C (128.3 F). Similar temperatures were recorded in Iran and Oman.

Also, in 2017, Italian farmers lost more than $1 billion in crops due to heat and drought. Wildfires popped up in Greece, Portugal and southern France where over 20,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

In February 2018, the Climate News Network published an article on the acceleration of increasing temperatures. From one study it cited, the 1.5C threshold may arrive in the next 18 years if carbon emissions don’t begin to come down.[8] That is by 2036, not the 2100 timeline of the Paris Agreement. It notes 2C limit for the global average temperature increase may be here in about 40 years.

In April of this year (2018) record temperatures returned to Pakistan. Nawabshah, in the Sindh Province reported a temperature of 50.2C (122.4F), high enough “to grind activity in the city to a halt.”

Research shows most people will suffer from hyperthermia, an elevated body temperature where the body produces or absorbs more heat than it can dissipate, after ten minutes in extreme heat and humidity. A body temperature above 40 °C (104 °F) is considered potentially life-threatening, but it is the combination of intensity and duration that causes the most problems. Up to 70,000 people died in the 2003 heatwave that hit Europe from June to August with temperatures as high as 38.5C (101.3F) in the U.K. and a week of 370C (99F) temperatures in France.

New research suggests temperature swings will worsen in the Amazon Basin, parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Sebastian Bethany of Wageningen University and Research notes that as soils dry due to rising temperatures, the moderating effect damp soils have had on temperatures in years past will diminish leading to larger variability. The frequency and intensity of heatwaves around the world is increasing, including those over our oceans.

Thawing Permafrost

As the planet continues to warm, scientists are increasingly concerned about the amounts of methane that will be released from the nutrient rich sediment in fresh water lakes, streams and wetlands, and the thawing of the arctic permafrost.

Permafrost is moist, soft soil that is frozen. It covers about one quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, primarily across Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. The permafrost layer begins a few feet under the surface and runs over 1,000 feet deep in some places. It contains massive amounts of carbon from plant and animal life that is frozen throughout it. Scientists estimate it contains almost twice the amount of carbon currently in our atmosphere[9]. At this point in time, the sub-Arctic permafrost, the layer below the Arctic Circle, is beginning to thaw.

In December 2017, temperatures rose so fast in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States, that NOAA’s climate database tossed out Barrow’s climate data as unreliable. Turns out Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States.

In some areas of northern Alaska, permafrost temperatures have risen 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s. As 85% of the state is covered in permafrost, this means that roads are buckling, houses are sinking, and the state is looking at billions of dollars in damages to its infrastructure. With the state budget so dependent on the oil industry, state lawmakers are supporting pumping more oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to pay for the repairs currently estimated at $5.5 billion.

Newtok, Alaska, a village of 400 residents, has received a $1.7 million grant from FEMA and Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security to move approximately 50 people nine miles inland due to catastrophic coastal erosion. The town has lost over a mile of coastline as the melting permafrost layer has been eaten away by ocean waters. Estimated moving cost for the entire town is $130 million.

While scientists do not know exactly how the methane released from the thawing permafrost will impact greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, they do know permafrost microbes produce more methane in a wet environment and more carbon dioxide in a dry environment. One estimate of the amount of CO2 emissions from the permafrost now thawing worldwide is an average of 1.5 billion tons a year, or about what the United States currently emits annually from burning fossil fuels.

The Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland

At the end of 2017, NOAA’s Arctic Report Card[10] stated: “The Arctic Ocean is presently experiencing changes in ocean temperature and sea ice extent that are unprecedented in the observational time period” which dates back to 1979 when satellite imagery of the area began to be collected. The report card also noted the Arctic “shows no sign of returning to the reliably frozen region it was decades ago.”

Arctic sea ice fluctuates seasonally, reaching its maximum in March and minimum in September. March 2018 marked the fourth year in a row that record low sea ice maximums have been recorded by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The Arctic region seems to be warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.[11]

This winter (2017-2018), ice from the Arctic averaging five meters thick (16 feet) flowed off the coast of Newfoundland creating hazardous shipping conditions never before seen. Fishermen were stranded on ice flows after their boats were punctured or sunk. Oil tankers were escorted through the dangerous conditions by Canadian ice breakers and ferries were rescued. Area ice during the winter months is usually half-a-meter thick.

Antarctica, the last continent to be discovered, is also feeling the effects of global warming. Roughly the combined size of the United States and Mexico, Antarctica holds 62% of the earth’s fresh water, but has lost 125 gigatons of ice each year between 2002 and 2016 according to NASA.[12] Like the Arctic, the southern polar region is also warming twice as fast as the rest of the Earth.

Along the Amundsen Sea and part of West Antarctic Ice Sheet are two of the Earth’s biggest and most vulnerable glaciers, the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. Scientists have discovered water intruding under them miles deeper than previously thought. Already extending out over the ocean, melting from the intruding warm water is leaving them increasing susceptible to collapse. When this occurs, a pathway will open allowing land ice to begin moving to the sea. This will accelerate rising sea levels by as much as ten feet.

Concern over the collapse of the Thwaites glacier has resulted in a joint U.S. and U.K. five-year research program described as “the most detailed and extensive examinations of a massive Antarctic glacier ever undertaken.” It will bring together over 100 scientists from seven countries to access how quickly it could collapse.[13]

A report just released by U.S. and U.K. scientists notes, “the rate of melting from the Antarctic ice sheet has accelerated threefold in the last five years and is now vanishing faster than at any previously recorded time.”[14] Based on satellite data, scientists are estimating the ice loss at 219 billion tons per year that contributes a 0.6mm rise in global sea levels. This is a vast change from 2012 where the loss was calculated at 76 billion tons of ice per year with a 0.2mm rise in sea level.

Dr. J.J. Hurtak of The Academy For Future Science standing near the beach in south Florida, flooding shown was not due to rain but sea level rise.

Photo: Desiree Hurtak

Almost entirely covered in ice, Greenland holds about eight percent of the Earth’s ice. The western part of its ice sheet is melting faster than any time in the past 400 years with a sudden spike in melt rate beginning in the 1990s. Satellite measurements show an average of 260 billion tons of ice per year are now flowing into the ocean. Scientists speculate more than half the loss is from meltwater rather than icebergs breaking off the leading edge of the ice sheet. All meltwater from Greenland contributes to sea level rise.

In the high mountain passes of Oppland, Norway, melting glaciers are exposing artifacts dating to 4,000 BCE, including Neolithic arrow heads, Bronze Age clothing and Viking Age skis. Another paper published by the American Geophysical Union in the March 2018 edition of their journal, describes the glacial melt on Mt. Hunter in Alaska’s Denali National Park as “60 times greater than it was prior to 1850.”[15]

Scientists recently concluded about a third of the glacial ice that exists today will melt even if GHG emissions ended today. Their glacier evolution model shows 33 pounds of ice is lost for every 2.2 pounds of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. It is past emissions that have locked these predicted changes into place.

Clearly the Earth is changing, so the question is, are we prepared for the changing environment and what do each of us have to do to make a difference? Environmental change is something that inevitably requires an awareness of ourselves as a planetary humanity as we discover how to adapt within a larger, transformational world.

  3. Methane vs. Carbon Dioxide: A Greenhouse Gas Showdown, Patti Nyman, September 30, 2014,
  4. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, 2014 and United States Global Change Research Program, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  9. Alaska’s Permafrost is Thawing, Henry Fountain, August 23, 2017,
  10. Arctic Report Card: Update for 2017, NOAA’s Arctic Program,
  14. › Earth › Earth Sciences
  15. Dominic Winski, et. al. (2018) “A 400-Year Ice Core Melt Layer Record of Summertime Warming in the Alaska Range.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 23 March 2018

Part 2 The Oceans