Charles Keeling

Charles Keeling grew up in the Midwest outside of Chicago where his father introduced him to the concepts of math and science. Though his mother instilled in him a lifelong love of music and literature, his pursuit of chemistry, and then the geochemical and geophysical sciences, grabbed his attention, leading him to developing atmospheric CO2 research. His research began in Big Sur, California, where he took advantage of his love for hiking, and began to expand to other regions in the U.S., eventually catching the attention of scientists at a new meteorological observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. It was here that Keeling produced data supporting the “natural sources and sinks of atmospheric CO2, produced by the oceans and terrestrial vegetation, as well as CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels.” By 1960, he had established that there are strong seasonal variations in carbon dioxide levels with peak levels reached in the late northern hemisphere winter. A reduction in carbon dioxide followed during spring and early summer each year as plant growth increased in the land-rich northern hemisphere.

In 1961, Keeling produced data showing that carbon dioxide levels were rising steadily in what became known as the "Keeling Curve." He joined the faculty at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, continuing his research as he built evidence of global warming. In his autobiography, published in a 1998 Annual Review of Energy and Environment, Keeling noted the advent of climate change deniers, stating, “I believe, however, that a more prudent attitude would be to heed the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration as serious unless proven to be benign. If scientists would make clear to the public the wisdom of this cautious approach, people would demand to be better informed about what scientists already know. The collective talent and wisdom of a species self-named Homo sapiens might then be better directed toward the issue of global warming.” Keeling’s career spanned more than 40 years and included multiple awards for his accomplishments, including a National Medal of Science in 2002, the highest U.S. award for scientific research lifetime achievement. “Perhaps my experience in studying the Earth, initially with few restrictions and later with increasingly sophisticated interaction with government sponsors and various planning committees, will provide a perspective on this great transition from science being primarily an intellectual pastime of private persons to its present status as a major contributor to the quality of human life and the prosperity of nations.”

Annual Review of Energy and the Environment
Charles D. Keeling