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Observing Global CO2 at The Top of the World Ignites My Teaching

Members of the IABP Spring 2023 Utqiaġvik Buoy Deployment campaign at the front entrance of the NOAA Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory

While in Utqiaġvik, (formerly known as Barrow) Alaska in early April 2023 I had the opportunity to tour the NOAA Global Atmospheric Baseline Observatory (view storymap) for the second time. It’s in this place that our planetary CO2 levels are observed, measured, and averaged with the three other observatory sites seen on the map below.

NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory (NOAA/GML) operates four staffed atmospheric baseline observatories from which numerous in situ and remote atmospheric and solar measurements are conducted.

Sarah Johnson pointing at the current atmospheric CO2 levels on the screen in the GML Atmospheric Baseline observatory on April 5, 2023
Station Chief, Bryan Thomas with Sarah Johnson holding an air sampling “Keeling” flask designed by Charles David “Dave” Keeling more than 50 years ago.

As a climate change educator and advocate for many years, being in this place standing next to the instrument that analyzes air samples and spits out a number for parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is kind of a big deal. Granted it is in a most remote place in an Arctic village at the top of the world near Point Barrow, Alaska and that is remarkable in itself just to get to travel to this place few will ever visit.

Station Chief, Bryan Thomas on the roof of the observatory building with the wide open Arctic tundra surrounding. Photo by Sarah Johnson.

Close to the NOAA Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory are many other sensors and observation stations including this weather balloon launcher. It launches a weather balloon twice a day every day of the year.


On October 24, 2009 in my small town of Carbondale, Colorado I spearheaded and worked with many community members to participate in a global day of action lead by Bill McKibben to bring awareness and action to slow our greenhouse gas emissions around the planet. We worked with the town trustees to change the name to ‘Dale’ to remove ‘Carbon’ just for a day. We had a bike parade, took an arial photo of everyone in the park (before drones were easily accessible), listened to a few speakers, and had a party sponsored by Dale’s Pale Ale. This was all during a time when there was a shared belief that we could keep our global CO2 levels below 350ppm.


Pointing to the current April 5, 2023 Barrow Observaotry reading for atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 410.15 ppm. This number is averaged three other global observatories shown on the map posted earlier in this blog. Photo by Sarah Johnson.

Now, 14 years later, the planet hovers around 420ppm of CO2 and continues to increase. I have become a recognized climate change educator whose passion and commitment to environmental education is unwavering and deep. I hear through research and the media that the majority of people are demanding climate change education be central to public education systems and yet the obnoxious loud minority thinks otherwise. I continue to learn and understand the critical need to center climate justice and the personal lived experience of resilience in all climate education to ensure its relevance. Focusing education on real-world solutions and how to civically participate promoting collective systemic change is the only way to create real hope for all.

The coast of the Arctic Ocean on April 6, 2023 in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Note the large earth filled sandbag in the center of the photo used to hold back the powerful waves and power of the rising ocean causing significant coastal erosion. Photo by Sarah Johnson.

Touring the NOAA observatory and supercomputer, hearing subsistence hunting and fishing stories from the local Iñupiat people, seeing the coastline with its ginormous sandbags and earthen berm construction to slow erosion, and listening to the concerns of local middle school students, my heart, mind, and passion has been strongly ignited with the fire and rage needed to demand immediate action by community leaders to create and policies to integrate climate change into every classroom, slow our collective impacts of consumption, and to not back down from my commitment to my work of creating and facilitating climate change workshops and trainings for educators.

Storm Surge repeatedly washes out the roads in Utqiagvik, Alaska. This image is from September 29, 2017. Photo from the Barrow Sea Ice webcam
Sarah Johnson teaching 8th graders about climate change in the Arctic while in the Arctic village of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Photo by Ben Evans.

The juxtaposition of big data, local Indigenous knowledge, youth voices, coastal erosion, and sea ice observations creates a wholehearted intense more clear understanding of just how essential and immediate our work as climate change educators is and needs to be.

Anytime we authentically listen to the first hand stories, make our own first hand observations, and connect them to our broader context, experience, and understanding of global scales we can more easily understand the circumstances and impacts of climate change in any community. Centering these local conditions, the resilient people, and relevant real-world realistic solutions into every climate change focused community engagement and education experience should lead to real hope and inspiration to take collective actions.

Learn more about my upcoming climate change education workshops happening both virtually and in-person.

1 Comment

May 04, 2023

Awesome article. Thanks for keeping us informed. KT, Cdale

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