Charles Keeling Biography

Born Charles David Keeling, April 20, 1928, in Scranton, PA; died of a heart attack, June 20, 2005, at his summer home, in Hamilton, MT. Climate scientist. When Charles Keeling made researching the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere his life's work, little did he know that his findings would become the cornerstone for the alarm raised on the effects of global warming of the Earth. His research became known as the Keeling Curve; it showed the annual rise of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Keeling was born on April 20, 1928, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1948 with a degree in chemistry. In 1954 he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Northwestern University. Although Keeling made chemistry his career choice, he was just as passionate about music, and could have became a concert pianist.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, Keeling constructed an instrument that would measure the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He camped for three weeks at Big Sur State Park in California with his wife and newborn son. He took daily measurements of carbon dioxide. He learned that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 310 parts per million (ppm). Carbon dioxide had been previously measured in the ice cores in the 19th century, before the start of the Industrial Revolution. The level then was 280 ppm.

In 1956 Keeling joined the staff at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. He continued his research at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. A station was built two miles up the dormant volcano. The area was chosen because it was high above the pollution. His first measurement of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa was 315 ppm. As Keeling tested each year, he noticed an increase of one ppm.

Keeling also learned that the amount of carbon dioxide fluctuated, but was at its lowest at the end of the growing season, and at its highest at the beginning of the growing season. His studies also showed that the increase in carbon dioxide levels was caused by the increased amount of fossil fuel being used in the world. Early in his research many believed that the Earth was getting warmer, a process that was called global warming. One of the reasons was the increased amount of fossil fuels being used by humans, in both industrial factories and through the use of automobiles. Many at the beginning of Keeling's research thought that despite the increase, plant life and the ocean would absorb most of the carbon dioxide. Keeling's research proved this was not the case.

After Keeling presented his findings, the government department that had funded his study cut off his funding. However, he was determined to keep going. Keeling sought others like him in the scientific community to argue on his behalf, and he pestered government officials until they caved in. Funding was restored and the only gap in Keeling's measurements were from February to May of 1964.

As many other scientists learned more about global warming, they used the Keeling Curve, a graph that showed the steady climb of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Many began to sound off alarms about the increase of carbon dioxide as well as the rise in other gases such as methane, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons. With the rise in the levels of these gases, known as greenhouse gases, the Earth continued to get warmer each year. This was labeled the greenhouse effect. Keeling also learned that the growing season began one week earlier than when he first began taking measurements.

While Keeling tried to not connect his findings with the increasing amount of fuel consumption the world used, others did. "It became clear very quickly that his measured [carbon dioxide] increase was proportional to fossil fuel emissions, and that humans were the source of the change," Dr. James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies told the New York Times . Many debated these claims, but because of his meticulous research, few could dispute Keeling's findings. In the 1990s he finally joined in and connected his research with the amount of fossil fuel being burned by the world. His latest findings showed the amount of carbon dioxide was 380 ppm, and the growth is now two ppm a year versus one when he first began his research. Spencer Weart, director of the Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, told the Washington Post, "Keeling is one of the few people who's responsible for the fact that the scientific community was awakened to the need to study global warming before it's too late."

In addition to the research Keeling did over a span of five decades, he also continued with his love of music. He founded the UC San Diego Madrigal Singers and continued to play chamber music. He was also a civic leader, and wrote the Del Mar, California, General Plan. He was also an avid outdoors-man. He camped and hiked in several places, including California, Canada, and Switzerland. Keeling was hiking near his summer home in Hamilton, Montana, when he suffered a heart attack and died on June 20, 2005, at the age of 77. He is survived by his wife, Louise; his sons Andrew, Ralph, Eric, and Paul; his daughter, Emily; and six grandchildren. Sources: Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2005, sec. 2, p. 11; Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2005, p. B8; New York Times, June 23, 2005, p. C20; Times (London), June 29, 2005, p. 56; Washington Post, June 24, 2005, p. B5.

Ashyia N. Henderson

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: