NASA just released an eye-opening new 3D visualization that shows just how long carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere – and how it moves around the world. Drawing on data from the satellite Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office generated what the agency calls “one of the most realistic views yet of how this critical greenhouse gas moves through the atmosphere.”
OCO-2, NASA’s “first satellite designed specifically to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide at regional scales,” has sent back nearly 100,000 estimates of carbon dioxide around Earth every day since 2014. NASA created the visualization with the satellite information to provide “an entirely different perspective” on carbon dioxide measurements.
Why is the visualization so important? Well, researchers know Earth’s oceans and land vegetation absorb almost half the emissions we humans cause largely through burning fossil fuels. But knowing that statistic isn’t enough; scientists still need to know which ecosystems take in what amounts of the greenhouse gas. Even more important, according to NASA, is the question of whether the oceans and land will reach a “point of saturation” or be able to keep absorbing carbon dioxide as emissions increase.
The exchange of carbon dioxide between oceans, land, and the atmosphere is called carbon flux, and the new dataset seen in the visualization may help scientists better analyze the phenomenon. NASA carbon cycle scientist Lesley Ott said, “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. 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.”
Images via NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers