New Funding Supports Keeling Curve & Ocean pH Research

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Carbon dioxide and ocean pH are key indicators of global warming, so philanthropists Eric and Wendy Schmidt have announced funding to support Keeling Curve carbon dioxide measurements and University of California San Diego’s ocean acidification measurements in the Atlantic and Pacific. The $1.45 million assistance is part of the Schmidt Family Foundation’s mission to address the global crisis of climate change through grants and impact investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, human rights, and marine technology.

Ocean pH
Image provided by Schmidt Ocean Institute

“Global warming is no longer a distant threat. It is our reality now,” says Wendy Schmidt, co-founder and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures.

With a philosophy that “political considerations have turned scientific pursuits into objects of controversy and shed doubt on objective scientific fact,” Schmidt Futures helps a variety of scientific pursuits continue to thrive, deliver results for society, and alleviate what might otherwise be a failure “to achieve our full potential.” The organization partners with the world’s top universities to ensure that AI and advanced data techniques are fully embedded in scientific research by transforming how universities organize themselves.

“Groundbreaking work conducted years ago by Charles David Keeling and others at Scripps Institution of Oceanography started a revolution not just on our campus but across the globe,” UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla notes.

The Keeling Curve: First Signals That Fossil Fuels Changes The Atmosphere’s Chemistry

The Keeling Curve carbon dioxide measurement — the long-term atmospheric measurement that alerted the world to human-induced climate change — will receive $1 million in continuation funding from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Scripps works to understand and protect the planet and find solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The grant, supported by Schmidt Futures, will fund global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration measurements maintained by the Scripps CO2 Group, including the critical Keeling Curve measurements that have been recorded daily at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) since 1958. Scientist Charles D. Keeling began taking measurements of carbon dioxide — a heat-trapping gas that raises atmospheric and ocean temperatures as it accumulates — at Mauna Loa and 9 other stations across the globe from the Antarctic to the Arctic.

The MLO, NOAA explains,

“protrudes through the strong marine temperature inversion layer present in the region, which separates the more polluted lower portions of the atmosphere from the much cleaner free troposphere. The undisturbed air, remote location, and minimal influences of vegetation and human activity at MLO monitor constituents in the atmosphere that can cause climate change.”

The earliest MLO measurements revealed the first signals that society’s use of fossil fuels was changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. “The scrupulously consistent measurements provide the world’s best baseline data on changes in the atmosphere,” offers Stuart Feldman, chief scientist of Schmidt Futures. “They permit analysis of long-term trends and provide definitive proof of global warming.”

Because the carbon dioxide analyzer is measuring emissions continuously, the scientists have an extraordinarily long record of baseline measurements.  “More than ever, we need good data to inform our critical policy decisions,” Wendy Schmidt states. “The Keeling Curve is an essential measurement of a changing climate. As the global pandemic continues to impact human activity, the interconnections between living systems are undeniable. It’s also clear that as we change our behavior, we can dramatically improve air quality.”

Researchers say the value of the Keeling Curve has increased over time, making possible discoveries about Earth processes that would have been extremely difficult to observe over short time periods or with only sporadic measurements. Khosla notes:

“Keeling realized that the full understanding of climate change required continuous observations over the long term. He and others created innovative new tools and new techniques, the kinds exemplified by these measurement series, to identify the issue and search for causes. Today, these data are vital to understanding and protecting our planet.”

In 2014, the Schmidts stepped in to fund the atmospheric measurements after national funding was discontinued. The original grant enabled the CO2 team to continue the measurements, analyze a 3-year backlog of samples, and increase outreach efforts to educate the public about the role carbon dioxide plays in climate.

Keeling’s son, Ralph, has continued the data collection and serves as the C02 group director. “Atmospheric CO2 is an important bottom line for the climate problem,” he affirms.

The $1 million Schmidt Futures grant will allow that work to continue through 2025.

Ocean pH
Image provided by Schmidt Ocean Institute

Hawaii Ocean & Bermuda Atlantic Time-Series: Important Ocean pH Reference Standards

In addition, the Schmidt Ocean Institute awarded a separate $450,000 grant to the University of California San Diego to support complementary ocean pH/acidification measurements in the Atlantic and Pacific.

This grant will support the continued analysis for 5 years of seawater samples under the leadership of Scripps Oceanography marine chemist Andrew Dickson, who created the reference standards used in the measurement of seawater carbon dioxide levels. Two studies, the Hawaii Ocean Time-series and the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series, which began in 1988, have provided key evidence that the world’s ocean pH has become increasingly more acidic as it absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

  • Scientists working on the Hawaii Ocean Time-series program make repeated observations of the hydrography, chemistry, and biology of the water column at a station north of Oahu, Hawaii. The objective of this research is to provide a comprehensive description of the ocean at a site representative of the North Pacific subtropical gyre.
  • Bermuda Atlantic Time-series (BATS) was established to uncover mysteries of the deep by analyzing important hydrographic and biological parameters throughout the water column. Pursuing this goal has enabled BATS scientists — and oceanographers worldwide — to completely revise their perspective on the ocean’s physical, chemical, and biological processes.

Data from the programs in Hawaii and Bermuda have contributed to a body of knowledge that ocean pH acidity has increased about 30% since the Industrial Revolution and could increase by 150% by 2100 if humans continue to emit carbon dioxide at their current rate.

“We know that the CO2 changes in the atmosphere are adversely impacting the ocean,” says Dr. Jyotika VIrmani, executive director, Schmidt Ocean Institute. “Measuring these changes over time, in a sustained manner, is critical to both monitoring and understanding how the ocean is responding and to find solutions to protect the ocean.”

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate the oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to the world’s greatest environmental challenges. The institution also operates a fleet of 4 oceanographic research vessels and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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