Sniffing Out Carbon Dioxide from Space

by kespeland on February 17, 2009

NASA has launched a new satellite that will help identify, in unprecedented detail, where carbon dioxide is being emitted and where it’s being sucked up. The idea is to provide a clearer picture of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen to all of the CO2 humans have produced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. NASA and other scientists estimate that, since then, global CO2 levels have increased dramatically, bringing about a more than one degree Fahrenheit change in earth’s surface temperature.Photo courtesy of NASA.

Part of the new observatory’s mission is to find a “missing link” in the carbon cycle. We know some of the CO2 has been trapped in the atmosphere, and some absorbed by oceans, but we’re not sure about the rest. The plan is to take extremely detailed measurements to find what’s missing. And, with that data, combined with other ground level observations, a global partnership of scientists hope to paint a better picture of what we can expect of future global warming.

From NASA’s announcement:

“The new observatory will dramatically improve global carbon dioxide measurements, collecting about 8 million measurements every 16 days for at least two years with the precision, resolution and coverage needed to characterize carbon dioxide’s global distribution. Scientists need these precise measurements because carbon dioxide varies by just 10 parts per million throughout the year on regional to continental scales.”

For you true science geeks, the satellite’s method is spectrometry. It’s basically a means of detecting a molecule’s “light signature,” and analyzing which part of the spectrum a molecule absorbs. That data can tell scientists where the CO2 is and, relatively, in what concentration.

The launch could hardly come too soon. The Associated Press reports from the proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

“Carbon emissions have been growing at 3.5 percent per year since 2000, up sharply from the 0.9 percent per year in the 1990s,” Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“’It is now outside the entire envelope of possibilities’ considered in the 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change, he said. The IPCC and former vice president Al Gore received the Nobel Prize for drawing attention to the dangers of climate change.”

Comments Closed

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: