The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned that the volume of greenhouse gasses increased to record levels in 2011, with those gasses ranked most harmful — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — all reaching new highs.
According to WMO’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, an annual update on radiative forcing or heat-trapping gases, there was a 30% increase in greenhouse gases in 2011. Specifically, those levelsÂ rose to 390.9 parts per million in 2011, which is 2.0 ppm higher than in 2010.
WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud warned that, until now, the phenomenon of carbon sinks — such as oceans and forests which take in massive amounts of these gases — may soon be surpassed by the level of greenhouse gases, at which time a tipping point could be reached.
“These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” said Mr Jarraud in a statement. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”
“Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future. We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs. There are many additional interactions between greenhouse gases, Earth’s biosphere and oceans, and we need to boost our monitoring capability and scientific knowledge in order to better understand these.”
WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch network spans in excess of 50 countries, with the aim of providing accurate measurements by which to form a full picture of the volume of greenhouse gasses.
It is important to note, however, that the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin does not report on greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the report focuses on gas concentrations. This is because gas concentrations allow a closer look at what gasses remain in the atmosphere and in carbon sinks, and allows us to assess the current impact on the biosphere and the potential impact should these rates continue to increase.
Five major gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous doxide, comprise 96% of the gasses currently warming our planet.
Among them, carbon dioxide has been responsible for 85% of the increase in global warming. WMO notes the volume of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 390.9 parts per million in 2011. To put this in perspective, this puts the total level over 140% higher than the 280 parts per million of the pre-industrial era. The pre-industrial level is held as a baseline for when there existed a workable balance between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere.
WMO noted that methane also contributed to the rise in greenhouse gas volume last year.
About 60% of the methane level comes from livestock breeding, mass agricultural farming, and the use of fossil fuels. In 2011, atmospheric methane reached a new high at 1813 parts per billion, or 259% of the pre-industrial level.
Nitrous oxide from biomass burning, fertilizer use, and various industrial processes, as well as from natural processes, also increased, with the concentration in 2011 reaching 324.2 parts per billion — 1.0 ppb above the previous year and 120% of the pre-industrial level.
Nitrous oxide’s impact has, over the past century, been 298 times greater than the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions. Nitrous oxide has also played a large role in the destruction of the ozone layer.
Efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations by countries like the United States and the UK have been shown to be making a slight impact, however emissions by developing countries, and particularly the emerging superpower of China which is set to surpass the United States in greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, have led to fresh concerns that the world has yet to get to grips with harmful greenhouse gasses.
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