NASA’s New Global View of CO2, Critical Step for Carbon-Cycle Science

NASA’s new global view of carbon dioxide builds on the agency’s previous satellite measurements of carbon dioxide and combines them with a sophisticated Earth system model to provide one of the most realistic views yet of how this critical greenhouse gas moves through the atmosphere.

Scientists have tracked the rising concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide for decades using ground-based sensors in a few places. A high-resolution visualization of the new combined data product – generated by the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, using data from the agency’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite build and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – provides an entirely different perspective.

The 3-D visualization reveals in startling detail the complex patterns in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, decreases and moves around the globe over the course of September 2014 to September 2015.


Carbon dioxide plays a significant role in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The gas is released from human activities like burning fossil fuels, and the concentration of carbon dioxide moves and changes through the seasons. Using observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) satellite, scientists developed a model of the behavior of carbon in the atmosphere from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015. Scientists can use models like this one to better understand and predict where concentrations of carbon dioxide could be especially high or low, based on activity on the ground. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers

Atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as Earth’s thermostat. Rising concentrations of the greenhouse gas, due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, have driven Earth’s current long-term warming trend. The visualization highlights the advances scientists are making in understanding the processes that control how much emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and how long it stays there – questions which ultimately will determine Earth’s future climate.

Scientists know that nearly half of all human-caused emissions are absorbed by the land and ocean. The current understanding is that about 50 percent of emissions remain in the atmosphere, about 25 percent are absorbed by vegetation on the land, and about 25 percent are absorbed by the ocean. However, those seemingly simple numbers leave scientists with critical and complex questions: Which ecosystems, especially on land, are absorbing what amounts of carbon dioxide? Perhaps most significantly, as emissions keep rising, will the land and the ocean continue this rate of absorption, or reach a point of saturation?

The new dataset is a step toward answering those questions, explained Lesley Ott, a carbon cycle scientist at NASA Goddard and a member of the OCO-2 science team. Scientists need to understand the processes driving the “carbon flux” – the exchange of carbon dioxide among the atmosphere, land and ocean, Ott said.

“We can’t measure the flux directly at high resolution across the entire globe,” she 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.”

OCO-2, launched in 2014, is NASA’s first satellite designed specifically to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide at regional scales.

“Since September of 2014, OCO-2 has been returning almost 100,000 carbon dioxide estimates over the globe each day,” said David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader. “Modeling tools like those being developed by our colleagues in the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office are critical for analyzing and interpreting this high resolution dataset.”

The Global Modeling and Assimilation Office has previously included carbon dioxide in its GEOS Earth System model, which is used for all manner of atmospheric studies. This new product builds on that work by using the technique of data assimilation to combine the OCO-2 observations with the model. “Data assimilation is the process of blending model simulations with real world measurements with the precision, resolution and coverage needed to reflect our best understanding of the exchange of carbon dioxide between the surface and atmosphere,” explained Brad Weir, a researcher based in the GMAO.

The visualization showcases information about global carbon dioxide fields that has not been seen before in such detail: The rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the Northern Hemisphere throughout a year; the influence of continents, mountain ranges and ocean currents on weather patterns and therefore carbon dioxide movement; the regional influence of highly active photosynthesis in places like the Corn Belt in the U.S.

While the finely detailed carbon dioxide fluctuations are eye-catching, they also remind Global Modeling and Assimilation Office chief Steven Pawson of the progress scientists are making with computer models of the Earth system. One future step will be to integrate a more complex biology module into the model to better target the questions of carbon dioxide absorption and release by forests and other land ecosystems.

The results highlighted here demonstrate the value of NASA’s unique capabilities in observing and modeling Earth. It also emphasizes the collaboration among NASA centers and the value of powerful supercomputing. The assimilation was created using a model called the Goddard Earth Observing System Model-Version 5 (GEOS-5), which was run by the Discover supercomputer cluster at Goddard’s NASA Center for Climate Simulation.

“It’s taken us many years to pull it all together,” Pawson said. “The level of detail included in this dataset gives us a lot of optimism that our models and observations are beginning to give a coherent view of the carbon cycle.”

Source: Patrick Lynch, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

4 Comments on "NASA’s New Global View of CO2, Critical Step for Carbon-Cycle Science"

  1. It is a travesty that this stands to be shut down by Trumps incoming regime. When the coming official government policy will be that climate change is a hoax by the Chinese government and the shutting down of NASA’s climate change research has already been announced. It will be a crime against humanity when it comes to pass.

    • Gosh, I hope you are wrong.

      The main thing coming from America that is praiseworthy is the work done by NASA. They almost single-handedly carry the reputation of the nation.

  2. Madanagopal.V.C. | December 21, 2016 at 7:48 am | Reply

    The CO2 map on the globe clearly shows dark green and red patch much more on USA and Japan whereas in India eventhough it has 130 billion population it is minimal. It is almost absent on poor countries of Africa, South America (except on its Andes Mountain range) and also on Australia. So Trump should understand his responsibility in causing global climate change and he should not discard it as hoax unscientifically. Thank You.

  3. I can’t believe anyone would believe anything that NASA, NOAA, GISS, ESA, IPCC ect says??? What the hell is wrong with you people and this garbage disinformation/lies/Fake News!! One need only look at historical data going back 10,000 years to know what the hell is affecting our climate and always has, instead of manipulated crap! These idiots base their lies on only the last 140yrs? That not science! Scientist know what s affecting our planet and the entire solar system but choose to lie for to many reasons to list. When we did have the warming spell that pretty much ended almost 20yrs ago the ice caps on Mars melted to? The winds on Venus have increased by 1/3rd and the big red storm on Jupiter started to disappear and another on is appear to be forming! All from humans burning petrol huh? Doesn’t anyone find it odd that these frauds don’t talk about natural cycles of our planet and our star? In the IPCC’s last report they used the word SOLAR ONCE? Those frauds don’t think our sun has any affect on our climate and you dumbasses believe the nonsense they put up on this website? I’ll give you all 2 hints, Earth is going through a magnetic reversal and our star is entering a solar grand minimum. Not only is our planet not warming anymore, it’s diving into a sever cooling trend. I hate to piss on everyone’s campfire but, the US accounts for about 2% of the earth’s surface, we have had a few mild winters here, but their getting slammed overseas with cold temps. Quit following those that spread misinformation like this crap site and seek the truth, the answers are right in front of your noses! CHEERS!!

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