NASA Is Trying to Map Out the Entire Earth's Carbon Cycle From Space

Carbon dioxide levels spiked during the powerful El Niño of 2015–2016, but it wasn’t quite clear why. So NASA set up about mapping Earth's carbon cycle from space. Scientists now have a better understanding of how the weather pattern affected the Earth’s atmosphere.

The agency’s satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 or OCO-2, was launched in July 2014, with the mission of collecting carbon dioxide measurements from around the world. The findings of the 2-year project were published on Friday in the journal Science.

Data collected from OCO-2, including gas and photosynthesis rates, showed that forests in some tropical regions weren’t gathering their usual amount of carbon. For example, in tropical Indonesia a forest was burned down, which caused carbon to be released and ultimately left less plants to pull the carbon back down.

“Now we can see that the tropical forest and plants didn’t absorb as much carbon as they usually do and that’s what caused this big increase in that time period,” Annmarie Eldering, the deputy project scientist for the OCO-2 project, told the Los Angeles Times.

In other regions of the world, similar issues occurred. In South America, a drought greatly impacted how much carbon dioxide the plants were able to collect. In Africa, higher than usual temperatures led plants to decompose much quicker, causing carbon dioxide to rapidly release into the atmosphere.

“This analysis shows more carbon release in 2015 relative to 2011 over Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia,” Eldering writes in one of the five published papers. “Now, the fundamental driver for the change in carbon release can be assessed continent by continent, rather than treating the tropics as a single, integrated region.”

These findings are important as El Niño events—a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean—are becoming more frequent due to greenhouse warming.

"If future climate is more like this recent El Niño, the trouble is the Earth may actually lose some of the carbon removal services we get from these tropical forests, and then [carbon dioxide] will increase even faster in the atmosphere," Scott Denning, an OCO-2 science team member, said during a NASA briefing, the BBC reports.

The scientists plan to use the data in a follow-up project called OCO-3. Its mission would include looking at the Earth from three ways: observing the area below the International Space Station, assessing light that bounces off the Earth, and closely evaluating targeted areas, according to Space.com. It’s expected to launch 2018, but, proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration would ax this effort.

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