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7. Is the current level of atmospheric CO2 concentration unprecedented in Earth’s history?

The present level of atmospheric CO2 concentration is almost certainly unprecedented in the past million years, during which time modern humans evolved and societies developed. The atmospheric CO2 concentration was however higher in Earth’s more distant past (many millions of years ago), at which time palaeoclimatic and geological data indicate that temperatures and sea levels were also higher than they are today.

fig3-smallFigure 3. Data from ice cores have been used to reconstruct Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the past 800,000 years. Temperature is based on measurements of the isotopic content of water in the Dome C ice core. CO2 is measured in air trapped in ice, and is a composite of the Dome C and Vostok ice core. The current CO2 concentration (blue star) is from atmospheric measurements. The cyclical pattern of temperature variations constitutes the ice age/ interglacial cycles. During these cycles, changes in CO2 concentrations (in blue) track closely with changes in temperature (in red). As the record shows, the recent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration is unprecedented in the past 800,000 years. Source: Figure by Jeremy Shakun, data from Lüthi et al., 2008 and Jouzel et al., 2007. ( larger version)

Measurements of air in ice cores show that for the past 800,000 years up until the 20th century, the atmospheric CO2 concentration stayed within the range 170 to 300 parts per million (ppm), making the recent rapid rise to nearly 400 ppm over 200 years particularly remarkable (see Figure 3). During the glacial cycles of the past 800,000 years both CO2 and methane have acted as important amplifiers of the climate changes triggered by variations in Earth’s orbit around the Sun. As Earth warmed from the last ice age, temperature and CO2 started to rise at approximately the same time and continued to rise in tandem from about 18,000 to 11,000 years ago. Changes in ocean temperature, circulation, chemistry and biology caused CO2 to be released to the atmosphere, which combined with other feedbacks to push Earth into an even warmer state.

For earlier geological times, CO2 concentrations and temperatures have been inferred from less direct methods. Those suggest that the concentration of CO2 last approached 400 ppm about 3 to 5 million years ago, a period when global average surface temperature is estimated to have been about 2 to 3.5°C higher than in the pre-industrial period. At 50 million years ago, CO2 may have reached 1000 ppm, and global average temperature was probably about 10°C warmer than today. Under those conditions, Earth had little ice, and sea level was at least 60 metres higher than current levels.