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Interannual extremes in the rate of rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1980


OBSERVATIONS of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and at the South Pole over the past four decades show an approximate proportionality between the rising atmospheric concentrations and industrial CO2 emissions1. This proportionality, which is most apparent during the first 20 years of the records, was disturbed in the 1980s by a disproportionately high rate of rise of atmospheric CO2, followed after 1988 by a pronounced slowing down of the growth rate. To probe the causes of these changes, we examine here the changes expected from the variations in the rates of industrial CO2 emissions over this time2, and also from influences of climate such as El Niño events. We use the13C/12C ratio of atmospheric CO2 to distinguish the effects of interannual variations in biospheric and oceanic sources and sinks of carbon. We propose that the recent disproportionate rise and fall in CO2 growth rate were caused mainly by interannual variations in global air temperature (which altered both the terrestrial biospheric and the oceanic carbon sinks), and possibly also by precipitation. We suggest that the anomalous climate-induced rise in CO2 was partially masked by a slowing down in the growth rate of fossil-fuel combustion, and that the latter then exaggerated the subsequent climate-induced fall.

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Keeling, C., Whorf, T., Wahlen, M. et al. Interannual extremes in the rate of rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1980. Nature 375, 666–670 (1995).

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