Nearly half of all human carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by plants, and NASA is monitoring this absorption.
Carbon dioxide or CO2 emissions into our planet’s atmosphere is causing climate change — a major problem that humans need to tackle and adapt to. It is leading to warmer atmospheric temperatures, warmer and more acidic oceans, rising sea-levels, and changing and extreme weather patterns. Although nations across the globe have committed to reducing carbon emissions, emissions will not slow in the near future, and CO2 concentrations will continue to rise.
An alarming fact is that CO2 concentrations are the highest they have been in 400,000 years, and we are on track to cross the CO2 threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm). This threshold does not mean there is going to be a climate catastrophe, but it does signal the importance of fighting climate change and how government inaction has only lead to worsening global impacts.
Luckily for us, CO2 concentrations would be much higher if it were not for plants that absorb nearly half of all human emissions each year. NASA is very interested in this part of the carbon system and is now monitoring and tracking the absorption of CO2 by the land and ocean.
“Some years, almost all of it stays in the atmosphere and some years almost none of it remains in the atmosphere. So in those years it must be absorbed into the ocean and land,” said Mike Freilich, the head of NASA’s Earth Science Division.
NASA scientists have been tracking CO2 movement using models and satellites such as NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2). “OCO-2 gathers 100,000 high quality measurements of CO2 across the globe daily,” said Annmarie Eldering, deputy project scientist of OCO-2. The instruments used on the satellite are so sensitive that they can detect changes as small as 1 ppm over any location, allowing scientists to determine potential CO2 hotspots.
For example, data from OCO-2 shows that there has been more CO2 over the tropical Pacific Ocean since the spring. Scientists are unsure if this is related to our current El-Niño which is known for creating above average ocean and atmospheric temperatures, but the results are different from previously collected data.
Why is it so important to monitor and track this absorbed CO2? Not only will it help scientists understand how the absorption of CO2 by plants may change with a changing climate, according to Lesley Ott, a NASA research who works on the carbon modeling, “The motivation of all of this is to make models better and predict how the carbon cycle is going to change over the coming years.”
The problem of climate change can no longer be ignored, and improved CO2 modeling will hopefully influence policymakers to make scientifically-informed decisions to protect our planet for generations to come.