by James R. Barrante, Ph.D.
We have all seen the famous ice-core graphs from data taken from Vostok Station, Antarctica. The CO2 graph going back some 400,000 years is particularly interesting. The graph clearly shows atmospheric levels of CO2 rising and falling on a periodic basis. The maxima, occurring approximately every 100,000 years at a level of about 280 ppm, represents the four interglacial periods, like the period we have been in for the last 10,000 years. By contrast, there are four minima at approximately 180 ppm corresponding to the periodic ice ages experienced by the globe over the past 400,000 years. We must keep in mind that on a scale of 400,000 years, a 200-year time period is about the width of the ink line. Usually attached to the end of of the graph, representing a time period of about the last 150 years, is a vertical line shooting up to over 350 ppm, and then extrapolated into the future. The caption found on many of these graphs is, “for the past 400,000 years CO2 levels in the atmosphere have never exceeded 280 ppm until now.” It is perhaps one of the most dishonest interpretations of data I have seen in my long scientific career.
Now, before going on, let me say that there is nothing dishonest about the ice-core data itself. It represents a beautiful piece of research done under miserably cold conditions by a group of scientists with the best intentions in mind. What is dishonest is the idea that the graphs represent global temperature and global CO2 levels. For example, ice core data came from samples of ice taken from the deep in the snowpack of Antarctica. The ice came from snow that fell through the atmosphere of Antarctica (not New Jersey) and CO2 levels were determined from air trapped in those bubbles. It is unlikely that those bubbles of air represent anything but the air over Antarctica.
The last part of the graph showing the last 150 years where “global CO2” shoots up to over 350 ppm was not constructed from Vostok ice-core data. It was constructed from data obtained from measurements taken on Mauna Loa, an active volcano. It would seem logical that the water temperature around Hawaii is a little warmer than the waters surrounding Antarctica, and since we know that atmospheric CO2 levels are controlled by water temperature, it would make sense that (volcanic action aside) CO2 levels around the Hawaiian Islands should be higher than around the South Pole.
So, when we say that CO2 levels never have exceeded 280 ppm for the last 400,000 years, that has only been verified over Antarctica. We have no research suggesting that this is true for any other part of the globe. You see, in science, an average of a specific property such as temperature, taken at different points with different measuring devices is just a number with no specific meaning. The number describes something that does not exist. For example, if you did not know the shape of an NFL football and I told you it had an average diameter of 6.64 inches, what shape would you expect it to have? A sphere? Obviously, the average diameter of a football doesn’t exist. The same thing is true for average global temperature, average CO2 level, average sea level, or average global anything. To suggest that it does is scientifically dishonest.
The only time that a an average is scientifically significant because it increases the precision of a measurement is when one measures the exact same thing with the exact same measuring device, under the exact same conditions hundreds of times.