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On The Dot: Mauna Loa observatory sees ever-increasing carbon dioxide levels

On The Dot: Mauna Loa observatory sees ever-increasing carbon dioxide levels
On The Dot: Mauna Loa observatory sees ever-increasing carbon dioxide levels 03:56

CBS News stations are dedicated to reporting more on the causes and impacts of climate change. To accomplish our goal, we enlisted the help of national environmental correspondent David Schechter and producer Chance Horner. These award-winning journalists along with a team of researchers and producers at the CBS Innovation Lab in Texas will show the Bay Area audience the science behind climate change. 

The reports are called "On The Dot with David Schechter;" this one begins Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

"This is where the carbon dioxide readings come from and I'm like, I gotta go see that place," remarked Schecter.

The observatory is at an 11,000-foot elevation. Here the CBS team met scientist Aidan Colton, who explained how for the last 65 years, scientists around the world have relied on the carbon dioxide measurement taken there. Too much carbon dioxide is what is driving climate change. 

Colton said air samples are taken here to determine how much carbon dioxide is in the air at such a high altitude. The remote location is far beyond any ground-level pollution from the communities below. The observatory is also surrounded by 2,000 miles of ocean. By the time the air reaches the top, it's been blended with air from around the globe.

Colton asked crew members to hold their breath when he take an air measurement so as to not add any additional CO2 to the mix.

In addition to the manual measurements, there's also a tower which is located another 140 feet higher than the observatory that pulls and analyzes samples 24 hours a day.

"Our job is to present the facts," explained Colton. "And the fact is that carbon dioxide is increasing, and it has been increasing since we started monitoring it."

The data is sobering. Starting in 1958, the samples taken at Mauna Loa show the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rising year after year. That's called the "Keeling Curve."

To put these measurements into historical perspective, ice core samples, ocean sediment, and tree rings dating 800,000 years ago show that while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may go up and down over time, it's never crossed a threshold. Scientists have a good idea how much carbon has -- historically -- been in the earth's atmosphere, but it's never crossed 300 parts per million or PPM. But in the past 65 years alone, CO2 in the atmosphere jumped to 420 PPM.

"CO2 in the atmosphere has never been seen this high in human history," said Colton. "It's harder and harder for me to speak to people like yourself and be optimistic about our future."

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