New NASA video shows how carbon dioxide flows in Earth’s atmosphere

Nearly all emissions of the greenhouse gas originate in the Northern Hemisphere

By Moushumi Sharma
Published: Friday 21 November 2014

A new computer model prepared by the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) shows how carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere travels around the globe. The graphic was created by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, US.

The simulation, which took 75 days to create, is called “Nature Run”. It shows CO2 (in red) gushing into the atmosphere after emanating from industrial centres and swirling around the continents. The model depicts emissions from May 2005 to June 2007.

The visual illustrates a few aspects which are crucial but often neglected in the climate change discourse. One, there is a stark difference in the CO2 levels between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, with the emissions coming almost exclusively from the North. According to a National Geographic report, the normally invisible gas flows from clusters in the US, Europe and Asia, eventually pooling over the Arctic.

The second aspect is that large amounts of carbon dioxide are absorbed seasonally by forests and other vegetation. As shown in the simulation, during summer, the red gas begins to fade as it is absorbed by photosynthesising plants. Again during winter, as vegetation dies or goes dormant, the red gas slips back into the atmosphere.

NASA claims this is a revolutionary database. “While the presence of CO2 has dramatic global consequences, it is fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale,” Bill Putman, lead scientist on the project, says in a press release. “Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe,” he adds.Besides mapping the greenhouse gas, the model can also aid engineers to test new satellite instrument concepts to gauge their usefulness.

According to the report, human activity releases 36 billion metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, mainly by burning fossil fuels. The World Meteorological Organization’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin states that average atmospheric CO2 reached 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013. This is a precarious situation as scientists warn that CO2 levels above 450 ppm could severely disrupt Earth’s climate.

On July 2 this year, NASA had launched a new satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, to track CO2 emissions with more precision.

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