Readings are coming in at 400 and higher all over the Arctic. They've been recorded in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia. But levels change with the seasons and will drop a bit in the summer, when plants suck up carbon dioxide, NOAA scientists said.
So the yearly average for those northern stations likely will be lower and so will the global number.
Globally, the average carbon dioxide level is about 395 parts per million but will pass the 400 mark within a few years, scientists said.
The Arctic is the leading indicator in global warming, both in carbon dioxide in the air and effects, said Pieter Tans, a senior NOAA scientist.
"This is the first time the entire Arctic is that high," he said.
Tans called reaching the 400 number "depressing," and Butler said it was "a troubling milestone."
"It's an important threshold," said Carnegie Institution ecologist Chris Field, a scientist who helps lead the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It is an indication that we're in a different world."
Ronald Prinn, an atmospheric sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said 400 is more a psychological milestone than a scientific one. We think in hundreds, and "we're poking our heads above 400," he said.
Tans said the readings show how much the Earth's atmosphere and its climate are being affected by humans. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high of 34.8 billion tons in 2011, up 3.2 percent, the International Energy Agency announced last week.