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This visualization shows carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) observed by OCO-2 from September 2014 to August 2015. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center OCO-2 satellite and satellite data images courtesy of NASA/JPL.
OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Climate Change - a weekly glance at the most important news about our changing world

El Niño 2015 forces largest carbon dioxide spike on record


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, March 11, 2016, 4:56 PM - Mauna Loa records the largest CO2 spike on record due to El Niño 2015, and Canada and the US sign a new climate pact. It's What's Up In Climate Change!

Record CO2 spike in 2015

As El Niño climbed to record-matching strength in 2015, affecting weather patterns all around the world, it also caused a spike in global carbon dioxide levels unlike anything we've seen so far in the record books.


Credit: NOAA/Scripps Institution of Oceanography

As of the end of 2015, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere rose by a total of 3.05 parts per million (ppm), which is now the largest annual increase in CO2 ever recorded. Reading across the above graph, the only year that came close to that was 1998, with an annual increase of 2.93 ppm.

What do 1998 and 2015 have in common? They saw extreme El Niños that are now tied for strongest on record.

What role did El Niño play in setting these carbon dioxide records? They caused record numbers of wildfires.

According to NASA:

Wildfires seem to ignite the geological version of the big belch. During El Niño, vast areas of the tropic regions dry out and become vulnerable to fire. During the 1997/1998 El Niño, wildfires ravaged huge areas in Latin America and Southeast Asia, belching large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the air.

Thus, in addition to the over 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from human activity that year, these wildfires added to it, to produce the largest increase in CO2 concentrations at the time.

This pattern repeated during 2015. Along with the roughly 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted from human sources during last year, Canada and the United States saw their worst wildfire seasons on record. According to the World Resources Institute, Forest fires burning in Indonesia - set during illegal slash and burn operations but which spread uncontrollably in the dry conditions - were found to be releasing concentrations of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere on a daily basis that far surpassed the daily emissions of the entire United States economy. The result was an even larger increase in carbon dioxide concentration during 2015.

What could this mean for the carbon dioxide increase during 2016? Another glance at the above graph offers a clue, because when you put the years into context with where they fell during their respective El Niños, 2015 actually corresponds to 1997. 2016, as the second year of this most recent super-El Niño event, will be the year that actually corresponds to 1998.

Based on current trends, 2016 carbon emissions from power generation, industry and transportation may remain at about the same level as last year, however with wildfire season already starting a full month early in Alberta this year, we may be seeing the start of another record-breaking spike in carbon dioxide concentrations.

Canada and the US strengthen ties to combat climate change

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama met this week to sign a new pact between Canada and the United States to fight climate change.

According to a joint statement issued on the website of the Prime Minister of Canada and by the White House:

The two leaders regard the Paris Agreement as a turning point in global efforts to combat climate change and anchor economic growth in clean development. They resolve that the United States and Canada must and will play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades, including through science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples. Canada and the U.S. will continue to respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples in all climate change decision making. Furthermore, the leaders emphasize the importance of the U.S. and Canada continuing to cooperate closely with Mexico on climate and energy action and commit to strengthen a comprehensive and enduring North American climate and energy partnership.

This new joint statement not only strengthens the two nations' commitment to the Paris Agreement and to reducing carbon emissions, but with it, both countries are also acknowledging the importance of regulating methane and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions as well. Although these gases are not as abundant as carbon dioxide, their warming potential on a molecule by molecule basis can far exceed that of CO2.

Through this agreement they have also pledged to address emissions from the aviation industry, to add vehicle emission standards for heavy trucks to their existing plans to improve the efficiency of cars and light trucks, and to expand research into clean energy, to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles and to strengthen the resiliency of the North American power grid.

Additionally, the agreement shows joint support for improved management of the Arctic and the use of responsible, science-based decision making regarding that important region of the world, along with the development of a pan-Arctic marine protection area network.

Read the full statement here.

Sources: NOAA | NASA | CBC | WRI | PM of Canada | White House

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