Hawaii site that measures global CO2 shuts down after Mauna Loa volcano eruption

Scientists scramble to re-establish the crucial monitoring that has been situated on the volcano since 1958

The world’s premier measurement site for global carbon dioxide levels has been shut down because of a volcanic eruption in Hawaii, with scientists scrambling to re-establish the crucial monitoring that has been situated on the volcano since 1958.

Lava has been shooting more than 150ft into the air from Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, since Sunday night and a river of molten rock is now not only menacing the main highway on Hawaii’s big island but also the Mauna Loa Observatory, a scientific station situated on the northern flank of the volcano.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), which oversees the facility, said that power lines to the observatory have been cut and an access road to the site is now inaccessible due to the flow of lava coming from the volcano.

Measurement of the world’s CO2 levels, which has been ongoing at Mauna Loa since 1958 and has become a crucial benchmark in the escalation of the climate crisis, has been paused due to the eruption, with the observatory’s eight-strong scientific staff unable to access its instruments.

Carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory over one week.
Carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory over one week. Photograph: Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

A Noaa spokeswoman said that scientists are trying to formulate an alternative plan to continue the measurement of CO2, such as moving equipment to an alternative site. “We hope to have everything back relatively soon; the team is evaluating that now,” she said. “The site is unique but they are working at plan B solutions now.”

Mauna Loa is one of the five volcanoes that form the island of Hawaii, the largest of the islands that make up the archipelago of the US state of Hawaii. The observatory is perched at 11,135ft above sea level on the volcano, with the remote location and normally undisturbed, clean air considered important advantages for its work of recording the world’s seemingly inexorable rise in carbon dioxide concentrations.

The upward march of CO2 levels recorded at Mauna Loa is sometimes known as the Keeling curve, named after Charles Keeling, the scientist who was the first director of the site. The levels have steadily and consistently climbed in recent decades. In June, Noaa announced that global concentration of CO2 had hit 421 parts per million, a 50% increase on pre-industrial times and the highest in millions of years.

Before the point where humans starting expelling huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, CO2 levels were around 280 parts per million for almost 6,000 years of human civilization. The rapid rise in the heat-trapping gas threatens the world with disastrous climate breakdown in the form of severe heatwaves, floods, droughts and wildfires.

Carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory full record.
Carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory full record. Photograph: Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

The volcano’s eruption is its first since 1984 and while lava is moving slowly, at less than 1mph, and not immediately threatening any towns on the island, it is emitting pungent gases and sulfur. David Ige, Hawaii’s governor, has warned of glass fibers that form when hot lava erupts and then cools in the air, which look like long strands of hair. “Certainly we would ask those with respiratory sensitivities to take precautions to minimize exposure,” he said.

The lava flow is also just a few miles from the island’s main highway, Saddle Road, and parking along sections of the highway has been banned. The eruption is occurring at the same time as lava is still flowing from the nearby, smaller volcano of Kilauea, which has been erupting since last year. Ige said that it is still “completely safe” for people to visit Hawaii, as long as they avoid the isolated area of the volcanic expulsion.


Oliver Milman

The GuardianTramp

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