The Pliocene Called. It Wants Its CO2 Levels Back.

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Earth's atmosphere is changing more quickly than ever before in human history, and it's no secret why. Humans are releasing a flood of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, into the air by burning fossil fuels. CO2 lingers in the sky for centuries, so once we reach a certain level, we're stuck for a while.

Until recently, our air hadn't contained 400 parts per million of CO2 since long before the dawn of Homo sapiens. It briefly broke 400 ppm in the Arctic in June 2012, but CO2 levels fluctuate with the seasons (due to plant growth), so they soon dipped back into the 390s. Hawaii then saw 400 ppm in May 2013, and again in March 2014. The Mauna Loa Observatory also averaged 400 ppm for all of April 2014.

That dabbling is now a headfirst plunge into the 400 ppm era, which is uncharted territory for our species. After the entire planet averaged more than 400 ppm for a month in March 2015, it went on to average 400 ppm for all of 2015, too. The global average passed 403 ppm in 2016, hit 405 ppm in 2017 and stood at nearly 410 ppm on Jan. 1, 2019. And now, in yet another miserable milestone, humanity has seen its first baseline recording above 415 ppm, recorded at Mauna Loa on May 11.

"This is the first time in human history our planet's atmosphere has had more than 415ppm CO2," meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote on Twitter. "Not just in recorded history, not just since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Since before modern humans existed millions of years ago. We don't know a planet like this."

Before this century, CO2 levels hadn't even flirted with 400 ppm for at least 800,000 years (something we know thanks to ice-core samples). The history is less certain before that, but research suggests CO2 levels haven't been this high since the Pliocene Epoch, which ended about 3 million years ago. Our own species, by comparison, only evolved about 200,000 years ago.

chart of yearly CO2 ppm at Mauna Loa, 1960-2019
A chart showing the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at Mauna Loa over 60 years. (Photo: NOAA)

A chart showing the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at Mauna Loa over 60 years. (Image: NOAA)

"Scientists have come to regard [the Pliocene] as the most recent period in history when the atmosphere's heat-trapping ability was as it is now," explains the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, "and thus as our guide for things to come." (For anyone who isn't aware, CO2 traps solar heat on Earth. There's a long historical link between CO2 and temperature.)

So what was the Pliocene like? Here are some key features, per NASA and Scripps:

  • Sea level was about 5 to 40 meters (16 to 131 feet) higher than today.
  • Temperatures were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer.
  • The poles were even hotter — as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) more than today.

CO2 is a key part of life on Earth, of course, and lots of wildlife flourished during the Pliocene. Fossils suggest forests grew on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, for example, and savannas spread across what is now North African desert. The problem is that we've built up swaths of fragile human infrastructure in just a few generations, and the abrupt return of a warmer, wetter Pliocene-esque atmosphere is already starting to wreak havoc with civilization.

Extreme weather swings can lead to crop failures and famines, for example, and rising sea levels endanger about 200 million people who live along the planet's coastlines. The Pliocene was prone to "frequent, intense El Niño cycles," according to Scripps, and lacked the significant ocean upwelling that currently supports fisheries along the west coasts of the Americas. Corals also suffered a major extinction at the Pliocene's peak, and an encore of that could threaten an estimated 30 million people worldwide who now rely on coral ecosystems for food and income.

While the Pliocene might be a useful guide, there is a key difference: The Pliocene climate developed slowly over time, and we're reviving it at an unprecedented speed. Species can usually adapt to slow environmental changes, and humans are certainly adaptable, but even we are ill-equipped to keep pace with this upheaval.

"I think it is likely that all these ecosystem changes could recur, even though the time scales for the Pliocene warmth are different than the present," Scripps geologist Richard Norris said in 2013. "The main lagging indicator is likely to be sea level just because it takes a long time to heat the ocean and a long time to melt ice. But our dumping of heat and CO2 into the ocean is like making investments in a pollution 'bank,' since we can put heat and CO2 in the ocean, but we will only extract the results over the next several thousand years. And we cannot easily withdraw either the heat or the CO2 from the ocean if we actually get our act together and try to limit industrial pollution — the ocean keeps what we put in it."

Pliocene fauna of North America, from a 1964 mural made for the Smithsonian Museum
An illustration of North American wildlife during the Pliocene, including now-extinct creatures like horned gophers and shovel-tusked gomphotheres. (Photo: Jay Matternes/Wikimedia Commons)

An illustration of North American wildlife during the Pliocene, including now-extinct creatures like horned gophers and shovel-tusked gomphotheres. (Image: Jay Matternes/Wikimedia Commons)

There's nothing magical about 400 molecules of CO2 in every 1 million molecules of air — their greenhouse effect is about the same as 399 or 401 ppm. But 400 is a round number, and round numbers are natural milestones, whether it's a 50th birthday, a 500th home run or the 100,000th mile on an odometer.

With CO2, even a symbolic milestone is important if it can draw more attention to how quickly and dramatically we're changing our planet. That's why scientists are trying to make sure we don't just zoom past these records without taking notice.

"This milestone is a wake-up call that our actions in response to climate change need to match the persistent rise in CO2," said Erika Podest, a carbon- and water-cycle scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, after one of the first 400 ppm recordings was announced in 2013. "Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators."