Who was Charles David Keeling, and was he nuts?

Who was Charles David Keeling, and was he nuts?

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Clip Guide

: Here you will find clear descriptions of what you just saw, how they know what they said they knew, why they know it to be trustworthy information. Finally we will ask the question, "So what!" and explore why the information is important.

WHAT do we know?

In this clip from a 2006 public lecture, "Will the Living Climate Save Us From Climate Change?", climate scientist Peter Cox describes the scientific heroism and pioneering measurements of Charles David Keeling. By 1958, Keeling had established an observatory for the continuous monitoring of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa - a remote site on the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano. Carbon dioxide turned out to play a huge role in determining Earth’s climate, and the “Keeling Curve” that Cox presents shows the rise of carbon dioxide concentrations measured at Mauna Loa between 1960 and 2005.

To watch the full video of the public lecture, click here.

HOW do we know?

Keeling gathered his data by using gas detectors placed at a remote Mauna Loa site. Since carbon dioxide (CO2) is a trace gas, comprising less than 1 % of the atmosphere, measuring it requires very sensitive instruments. To read how CO2 is measured at Mauna Loa today, click here.

WHY can this be trusted?

Keeling was a scientist with a reputation for careful scientific measurements.  One sign that his instruments were successfully measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) is that concentrations went up and down in a seasonal pattern (the wiggles in the graph).  This fits logical expectations that plants in the northern hemisphere would use more CO2 during the spring/summer growing season, and thus atmospheric concentration of CO2 would go down at those times.


The measurements made by Charles David Keeling were responsible for awakening scientists to the fact that carbon dioxide is increasing in Earth’s atmosphere. Keeling was dedicated to this work before others commonly recognized how important atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is to determining Earth’s climate. This is why Dr. Cox states, “This record sets the stage for today’s concerns about climate change. Some people consider this to be the most important environmental record that’s been taken in the 20th century.”

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Further Reading
Further Reading: 

To watch the complete public lecture from Peter Cox, visit the AGCI website.

"The History of the Keeling Curve." The Keeling Curve: A Daily Record of the Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, University of California, San Diego.