Every day for the last two years, a NASA satellite has taken around 100,000 measurements of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. A new animation combines that data with a supercomputer model to show an ultra-detailed, mesmerizing view of how carbon dioxide moves through the atmosphere.
Most of the CO2 swirls over the Northern Hemisphere, where humans pump out the biggest emissions. As plants grow in the spring and summer, they suck up massive amounts of CO2 and levels drop; as plants decompose and release carbon in the fall and winter–and as human emissions keep adding to the mix–carbon dioxide levels surge.
NASA’s OCO-2 satellite, launched in 2014, helped researchers track how droughts and high temperatures have killed or stunted plants in Africa and South America, limiting how much CO2 they can absorb. When fires in Indonesia released 500 to 700 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2015, the satellite showed that process in detail.
The satellite data will also help researchers answer a critical question about what happens to all of the extra CO2 humans produce. Roughly half of CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere. A quarter of emissions are absorbed by plants and trees, but scientists don’t yet know the details of which ecosystems take in which amounts. Another quarter of emissions are absorbed by the ocean–but the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon may soon reach a saturation point. What happens after that could be disastrous.