CO2 Now

Mauna Loa | Atmospheric Science and Wonder PDF Print E-mail

Mauna Loa Science & Wonder

At the end of March 2011, globe-trotting climate photographer Gary Braasch paid a visit to the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. It didn’t take long for Braasch to come away with a stunning set of images and informative commentary.  Check out his photolog, reposted below with permission.  (Or, skip over to Gary Braasch's to see his Mauna Loa science photographs and other climate change photos from around the world.)   It's like getting a personal tour of the world famous observatory and the atmospheric science that happens 24-7 near the top of the mountain, 3.4 kilometres above sea level.  CO2 Vial & Mauna Loa Observatory at Night | Braasch photos

The following is reposted from with permission.

April 2011

Greenhouse gases increase at record rate in 2010 to highest ever recorded.

Report from Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii

Maunal Loa Observatory at Night

At night at the NOAA atmospheric and space observatory on the upper flanks of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, a visitor walks along walkways between installations. This is NOAA's main location for direct measurements of many components of the air, the sun and the universe, including the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Air is collected on a 27 meter tower (left) and analyzed for CO2 content. CO2 alone is responsible for 63 percent of the warming attributable to all greenhouse gases. At right, a powerful laser beam is used to measure aerosols in the air up to 45 km into the stratosphere.

CO2 Tower at the Mauna Loa Observatory

Overview of NOAA's atmospheric and space observatory, at 3400 meters on the northeast flank of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The observatory consists of 10 buildings from which up to 250 different atmospheric parameters are measured. Measuring carbon dioxide at this location, begun in 1958 at the request of Charles David Keeling of Scripps Oceanographic Institution, has created the longest continuous record of atmospheric CO2 concentrations available in the world. The resulting "Keeling Curve" showing the yearly seasonal fluctuation in CO2 and the rising rate of increase year to year has become central to the understanding of global warming. Average yearly CO2 concentrations here have risen from 315.98 parts per million (ppm) in 1959 to 389.8 ppm in 2010 -- an average growth rate of 1.4 ppm per year. However NOAA's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) reported that the average CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa in 2010 increased 2.39 ppm over the previous year. Mauna Loa is just one of the sites at which carbon dioxide is measured, and CDIAC calculated that the globally averaged increase from 2009 to 2010 was even more -- 2.76 ppm -- the greatest since 1998 and the second greatest increase since records began. At this rate the 400 ppm level will be reached in less than four years.

We are already on a continuum of climate change effects: glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, habitats are moving, species are being pushed toward extinction and millions of people are caught in severe weather events. Scientists advising the United Nations recommend the world should act to keep the CO2 levels below 400-450 ppm in order to prevent even more irreversible and disastrous climate change effects.

MLO CO2 Tower & Dobson ozone measurement dome

Air is collected continuously near the top of a 40 m tower (and several shorter towers), and analyzed for CO2 content every minute by both Scripps Oceanographic Institute and NOAA. The accuracy of readings is tested by periodically measuring known quantities of CO2 kept in standard reference tanks in the lab. Results are computed hourly by NOAA. Worldwide coverage and comparison is insured by similar measurements at three other major observatories and hundreds of ground, airborne, balloon and tower CO2 measurements. Equipment in the nearby dome in this photo measures the thickness of the ozone layer -- a crucial protection from ultraviolet radiation and subject of a successful international agreement to limit chemicals which deplete the ozone. This agreement, the Montreal Protocol, is one model of international cooperation for the general good which influences the negotiations over the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

NOAA CO2 Vial with CO2 Tower and CO2 Data in the Background

When Gary Braasch photographed the Mauna Loa NOAA observatory in late March 2011, the CO2 concentration was measured at more than 392 parts per million (ppm) -- nearly 3 ppm higher than in December 2010 and 112 ppm (40 percent) higher than the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution (approx 280 ppm). The burning of fossil fuels which began around 1750 and is considered the largest measured source of the added CO2, continues unabated worldwide. Scientists are very certain from thousands of studies and observations that this greenhouse gas, with contributions from methane and several other gases, warms the atmosphere increasingly as atmospheric concentrations go up ever higher. Analysis of our world's average surface temperatures by NASA and NOAA confirms that the Earth is warming: 2010 was the warmest year ever measured since the 1880s, slightly warmer than 2005, and 1.13°F warmer than the mid-20th century average. Given the huge volume of the Earth's atmosphere, the very slow pace of previous times of warming (like at the end of the last ice age) and the changes already seen due to warming over just the past several decades – scientists say the current temperature rise is unusual and very rapid. See Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World for details.

NOAA MLO Observatories for the Sun, Stars and Winds

A line-up of observatories above the clouds on Mauna Loa, Hawaii. From left to right: University of Hawaii VYSOS project aims at surveying all the major star forming regions for variable young stars; Solar Dome continues NOAA's measurement of the transmission of sunlight, the longest continuous record of this nature in existence; and the University of Hawaii GroundWinds instrument tests wind-measuring equipment that might later be deployed on a satellite.

John Barnes of NOAA measures aerosol content

Dr. John Barnes, NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory Station Chief, in the laser radar room of the station. He is principal investigator for long term monitoring of stratospheric aerosols made up of sulfuric acid and water which cool the earth by reflecting the sun's light back into space, affecting solar radiation and ozone. Once each week Barnes aims a powerful pulsed laser into the stratosphere to light up tiny particles and create a high-resolution vertical profile of the optical scattering characteristics of aerosols, clouds, and the background molecular atmosphere. This technique is called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and measures back-scattered laser light from particles and molecules using four telescopes aimed at the laser beam at various heights above the station. These readings can be related to the total amount of stratospheric aerosols and the cooling they create. Dr. Barnes is holding a flash lamp used to pump the original Ruby laser which measured stratospheric aerosols from the early 1970's until 1998. The new, more powerful lidar started operation in 1994.

NOAA Laser at Mauna Loa ObservatoryAs the laser shoots a green beam of light into the stratosphere from a hatch in the roof of the station, John Barnes settles into his office for several hours of monitoring the LIDAR equipment and the read-outs on his computer screen. Traces created from back-scattered laser light detected by the four telescopes show particulates and aerosols at miles above the station. In addition to the primary target of stratospheric aerosols, which are about 99 percent sulfuric acid/water droplets created by volcanos, the LIDAR can also detect tropospheric aerosols. Barnes said that during this time of the year there are often dust storms in China and the lofted dust and pollution can be carried out over the Pacific.  On the night these photos were made, March 31, 2011, one of these layers showed an elevated spike (red trace) at 5 km in the atmosphere above the observatory. 

One of the clearest skies on the planet gives Mauna Loa observatory, at 3400 meters (more than 11,000 feet), a spectacular backdrop of stars for its measurements. Here, Orion overlooks the neighboring CO2 tower on the right and the stratospheric aerosol-detecting LIDAR laser beam. These two measurements are both related to the temperature of the atmosphere: While CO2 molecules warm the atmosphere, the aerosols in the stratosphere reflect sunlight away from the Earth, and heavy concentrations, such as from explosive volcanic eruptions can cool the earth. Mauna Loa records clearly show the effect of increased aerosols from the large eruptions of El Chichon(1982) and Mt Pinatubo (1991) and resulting decreased solar radiation for a few years afterwards. The Pinatubo eruption cooled the Earth by about one degree F. for more than a year. Today's atmosphere is comparatively low in stratospheric aerosols, according to NOAA's John Barnes, so there is little contribution to reduction in the rising greenhouse warming.


More Gary Braasch photography:

Mauna Loa Photolog: April 2011 Newsletter  |

Climate Change Photographs  |

Gary Braasch Photography  |  Braasch Photography

Gary Braasch  Profile  |  GHG Photographers


Related Articles:

Mauna Loa CO2  |

Atmospheric CO2 Data  |





Photography and text Copyright © 2005 - 2011 (and before) Gary Braasch All rights reserved. Use of photographs in any manner without permission is prohibited by US copyright law. Photography is available for license to publications and other uses. Please contact This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it . View more of Gary Braasch's photography here.

Gary Braasch, Photographer PO Box 1465 Portland, OR 97207 USA USA Cell: 503.860.1228



< Prev   Next >