NewsDecember 15, 2016

NASA Just Created a Stunning New 3-D View of CO2

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

It’s been clear that carbon dioxide is changing the climate. Now how it moves through the atmosphere is clearer than ever thanks to NASA scientists, satellites and supercomputers.

NASA released a mesmerizing new visualization of a year in the life of carbon dioxide this week. It shows how carbon dioxide twists and turns around the globe like a river (fun nerd fact: scientists model the atmosphere using similar techniques they use with fluid dynamics).

That includes the seasonal rise and fall that’s been well-documented at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory through the iconic Keeling Curve, as plant growth in the northern hemisphere summer helps sequester carbon. The new visualization moves way beyond that 2-D graph from one location. It shows how carbon dioxide moves and changes at different heights in the atmosphere.

The data comes courtesy of NASA’s OCO-2 satellite, which has been taking nearly 100,000 carbon dioxide measurements a day since it came online in September 2014. The satellite is the first of its kind to measure the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide from space. That means it can show where carbon pollution is coming from and how much of it is being taken up by oceans and forests (and how much remains in the atmosphere).

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Combine that data with weather models run on NASA supercomputers, and voila, you have one of the most in-depth views of carbon dioxide around the planet.

“We are trying to build the tools needed to provide an accurate picture of what's happening in the atmosphere and translating that to an accurate picture of what's going on with the flux,” Lesley Ott, a carbon cycle scientist at NASA working on the OCO-2 data, said in a press release. “There's still a long way to go, but this is a really important and necessary step in that chain of discoveries about carbon dioxide.”

Understanding the sources of carbon pollution is important for climate negotiations as well as regional plans for how to reduce it. And knowing where carbon dioxide is being taken up is just as important.

There are concerns that some sinks that absorb carbon dioxide could lose their ability to sequester carbon as the climate changes. The Amazon rainforest, for example, sucks up about a quarter of all carbon dioxide absorbed by vegetation, but there are signs that a drying trend has been hampering that ability.

The data coming from OCO-2 is another tool scientists have to monitor changes in the Amazon as well as other forests and oceans around the globe. With carbon dioxide passing crucial milestonesthis year and unlikely to slow in the near future, those efforts will be all the more important for knowing what comes next for our planet.

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