NASA’s newly released video of the earth has a strange hypnotic beauty that resembles the shifting sands of the desert or the psychedelic swirling colors of soap bubbles. But this video reveals an otherwise invisible threat caused by the short-term release of millions of years of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.Hundreds of ground level CO2 monitoring stations across 66 countries have been used to measure carbon dioxide concentrations over the past century. These observations revealed that last year the average global CO2 concentration exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in more than two million years– a time when giant camels roamed places as far north as Ellesmere Island in the high Canadian arctic.
We know much about the long term history of carbon dioxide from ice core samples and a combination of atmospheric sampling and calculations based on known levels of industrial carbon consumption. For example, any high school chemistry text book will tell you that that approximately 2.6 tons of CO2 is produced for every ton of coal burned. The world coal association estimates that approximately 7.6 billion tons of coal are consumed every year, so ignoring oil, gas and other significant CO2 producers, humans release approximately 20 billion tones of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year.
An optimist might assume that nature quietly absorbs all of this CO2 without any harmful side-effects such as ocean acidification. But the scientists at NASA’s Goddard research center don’t want to bet our future on polyanna assumptions. Instead, they are using a supercomputer model called GOES-5. Similar computational models are used to predict the behavior of hurricanes and other weather patterns. This particular GOES-5 model is designed to calculate where this carbon dioxide goes. It reveals the release, sequestering and movement patterns of this otherwise invisible gas. I’d suggest watching this video first with the sound turned down and knowing only that redder colors represent higher CO2 concentrations.
Now that you’ve seen it, watch it again with narration and look for the following:
- High concentrations of CO2 from northern hemisphere populations in Asia, Europe and North America but relatively little CO2 in the southern hemisphere.
- Carbon Monoxide (CO), represented in shades of blue and gray, is released from fires in Africa and South America.
- As northern hemisphere spring moves into summer, plants remove some of the highest concentrations of CO2.
- Carbon dioxide follows weather patterns similar to moisture, concentrating in swirling patterns which move from west to east.
- Carbon dioxide moved from population centers to concentrate in the high arctic where there are few trees to absorb it.
This visualization is a tool to help people understand the scope of the world’s invisible carbon dioxide problem. The complexity of CO2 flow demonstrates how difficult it is to measure this simple parameter. No doubt, part of the money each of us spend on fossil fuels is redirected to marketing propaganda designed to assure the status status-quo. As the northern hemisphere enters another high CO2 season, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO2) satellite will soon provide real-time readings of global CO2 that we can compare with these supercomputer models. In the end, science will reveal a truth that won’t bend to politics, slick marketing or wishful thinking.