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The Keeling Curve and the NOAA Climate Model

NOAA Innovation in Everyday Life

The Keeling Curve and the NOAA Climate Model

NOAA has been at the forefront of climate observation, measurement, and modeling since the 1950s.   Many of the scientific discoveries made along the way, while possibly not familiar to the average citizen, are now widely used to describe our knowledge of Earth’s climate system.

Monitoring the Atmosphere

The Global Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO, has for decades collected regular measurements of gases (i.e., carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, etc.), aerosols, and solar/infrared radiation from sites around the globe.  NOAA gathers these measurements from Atmospheric Baseline Stations, globally distributed cooperative measurement locations, and from aircraft, ships, balloons, and even trains.   One of the most significant of these measurements is the carbon dioxide record from the NOAA Mauna Loa Baseline Observatory in Hawaii.

Carbon Dioxide

Mauna Loa is where the first continuous carbon dioxide measurements were started by C. David Keeling of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 1958 at the NOAA facility there.  NOAA began its own measurements of CO2 in 1974, and these have run in parallel with those from Scripps since then.  The annual saw-tooth pattern in the carbon dioxide graph is produced by growing vegetation that consumes carbon dioxide in the spring and summer, and releases it in the fall and winter. The often reference long-term upward trend of CO2, known as the Keeling Curve, is the result of carbon dioxide that is released by the combustion of fossil fuels.  

Climate Modeling

Soon after Keeling began his first measurements at Mauna Loa, scientists at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey, developed a revolutionary computer-based climate model that combined both oceanic and atmospheric processes.  

Climate models are computer-based simulations that use mathematical formulas to re-create the chemical and physical processes that drive Earth’s climate.  This pioneering model included all the basic components of climatic factors (atmosphere, ocean, land, and sea ice), but covered only one-sixth of the earth’s surface, from the North Pole to the equator and 120 degrees of longitude east to west.

Despite its limitations, the new model allowed scientists to understand how the ocean and atmosphere interacted with each other to influence climate.  The model also predicted how changes in the natural factors that control climate such as ocean and atmospheric currents and temperature could lead to climate change.  Since then, the GFDL climate model has evolved considerable and has much broader and more precise representation of Earth’s physical systems.  The GFDL model, along with NOAA’s long-term record of atmospheric monitoring, form the basis for modern climate science and weather forecasting.


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