Magic Number 400: Amazing in Baseball—Bad in the Atmosphere

I love baseball. Truth be told, many of my blog posts are written on my Macbook Air with the Toronto Blue Jays on in the background. (Pretty tight division race this year, you have to admit.) One thing I love about the game is its history, especially the greats who played the game in years past. Names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Willy Mays… the list goes on and on. I even got to see Hank Aaron hit a home run in Jarry Park Stadium against the Montreal Expos when I was a kid. (Somewhere between 715 when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, and 755 when he set his own, a record that stills hands in my books.)

One of the all-time greats was Ted WIlliams. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. His career batting average was .344, and he was the last player to ever have a season average above a very magical number: he broke the elusive 400 barrier, batting .406 in 1941.

The 400 barrier in baseball is practically unattainable for a season average today, given that it’s over 70 years since it last happened. Sadly, there’s another 400 barrier that would ideally be just as unattainable but regrettably has just been broken. At the Arctic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado has confirmed that our atmosphere’s concentration is 400 parts per million (ppm), a new record for a monthly average in a remote location. (Remote locations are important because levels will be higher near regions of industrialization, so samples in the Arctic are a better reflection of what’s really happening to planet.) Globally the level is currently 395 but this is the first time a level of 400 has been recorded in a remote location. And it wasn’t just an isolated incidental finding: levels of 400 were observed in recordings taken from Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and Mongolia.

To be fair, this is the the time of year when the concentration of carbon dioxide will be at its highest. Now that we’re approaching summer in the Northern Hemisphere, photosynthesis is going to take in much of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide so the levels will consistently drop until about October when we approach the winter months with an associated reduction in photosynthesis until next Spring. Of course, then Arctic levels of carbon dioxide will likely be higher still.

In a previous blog I described the climate record of carbon dioxide levels from the Ice Core taken from Dome C in Antarctica. It provides a record of trapped atmospheric gases dating back about 800,000 years. In that entire time span, a carbon dioxide level of 400 ppm was never attained. Not even close, in fact. For most of that time, carbon dioxide levels were between 190 and 280 ppm, rarely breaking into the 300s.

Granted, it’s only a couple of points higher than last year and the trend of rising levels has been rather consistent, climbing globally about 2 ppm per year, so it’s not too much of a surprise. It was just a matter of time before we got to this level, and globally it’s anticipated we’ll have levels of 400 ppm in 2016, at which point Arctic levels will likely be around 405 ppm.

But I think this is significant and psychologically has tremendous impact. The fact that such a milestone has been reached when we have no evidence that our planet has seen such a high concentration in nearly a million years (and likely much longer—we just lack ice cores deep enough to have preserved older samples) is disconcerting to say the least. Last year’s global emissions reached a record 31.6 billion tonnes according to the International Energy Agency, one billion tonnes more than in 2010. Given the ongoing trend of increasing greenhouse gas emissions with no hope for a decline in sight—even a plateau would be nice—it’s hard to be optimistic about where this planet is heading.

Even if the magic number of 400 ppm is an arbitrary one because we have ten fingers and think in factors of ten for our numbering system, I still hope it starts to scare some of those who have been less convinced of a problem. There will still be those out there who will deny it’s a concern, or deny that it’s our fault. But for those who are more open-minded but still not sure what to think about climate change, perhaps the broken barrier of 400 will have an impact.

I certainly hope so. For all our sakes, I don’t want to see carbon dioxide levels matching too many more baseball records in my lifetime.

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