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Fossil Fuels Fail to Explain Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels

13, April 2009

Chair of the Australian Environment Foundation, Jennifer Marohasy, today welcomed new research by Australian physicist, Dr Tom Quirk, suggesting natural environmental forces, more than just fossil fuel emissions, could be contributing to the elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide [CO2].

“Most CO2 from fossil fuels is emitted in the northern hemisphere and it takes at least six months to spread to the southern hemisphere, which means that concentrations in the northern hemisphere should go up before they do in the southern hemisphere. In fact, they go up simultaneously, which suggests that manmade CO2 emissions are not the only contributor to the rise in global CO2 and there must be some other source.

The new research paper published in the journal ‘Energy and Environment’ explains that given 95 percent of CO2 from fossil fuel is emitted in the northern hemisphere then some time lag might be expected due to the sharp year-to-year variations in the estimated amounts left in the atmosphere.

“A tracer for CO2 transport from the northern to the southern hemisphere was provided by radioactive CO2 with the isotope Carbon-14. A sharp rise in radioactive carbon was created by nuclear weapons testing in the 1960’s.  Analysis of Carbon-14 in atmospheric CO2 showed that 50 percent of the CO2 was transported from the northern to the southern hemisphere within a year and it took some five years for exchanges of CO2 between the hemispheres before the Carbon-14 was uniformly distributed,” said Dr Quirk.

 “A simple model, with a one year mixing time, showed a delay of six months for CO2 changes in concentration in the northern hemisphere to appear in the southern hemisphere.”

“However, the measurements of CO2 show no time difference between the hemispheres.  This suggests that the annual increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide may be coming from a global or equatorial source. This could result from the action of the world’s oceans with changing temperatures or their phytoplankton or could flow from global changes to forests and savannahs,” explained Dr Quirk.

 “Dr Quirk’s findings generate almost more questions than they answer, but then again that is the nature of good science.  The findings are radical because they challenge a key premise of the current consensus.  But just because they are not mainstream, doesn't mean they are wrong,” said Dr Marohasy.

 “It is certainly premature for the federal government to be pressing ahead with its Emissions Trading Scheme given we understand so little about climate and climate change,” concluded Dr Marohasy.  

Media contacts:

Dr Tom Quirk   Tel. 0415 549 676
Tom Quirk has a Master of Science from the University of Melbourne and Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Oxford.   His early career was spent in the UK and USA as an experimental research physicist, a University Lecturer and Fellow of three Oxford Colleges.

Dr Jennifer Marohasy   Tel. 041 887 32 22
Jennifer Marohasy has a BSc and PhD from Queensland University and is Chair of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Paper cited:  ‘Sources and Sinks of Carbon Dioxide’, by Tom Quirk, Energy and Environment, Volume 20, pages 105-121

Online Discussion. Journalists can read discussion of the new research findings online at

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