Every year we pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mostly by burning fossil fuels.
The ocean has absorbed a lot of this greenhouse gas in recent years but it’s losing its ability to do so and atmospheric gas levels continue to grow, leading us closer to a point where significant global warming will be inevitable.
This spring, levels of atmospheric CO2 topped 400 parts per million in most of the northern hemisphere for the first time in modern human history — experts think we need to lower those levels to be consistently below 350 ppm to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center recently created the high-resolution computer model below from data gathered between May 2005 and June 2007, which they use to illustrate how carbon in the atmosphere changed throughout 2006. It shows the greenhouse gases produced by humans and naturally from the Earth and then spread around the atmosphere by the wind. The model shows one year of data in just a few minutes.
As you can see, most carbon dioxide comes from industrialized parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. There, it’s picked up by winds and spreads around the globe, especially in the Northern hemisphere.
These gases are considered particularly responsible for warming in the Arctic, located above Europe and North America, where these greenhouse gasses are pooling, and where temperatures are rising twice as quickly as in the rest of the world. This has led to record lows in Arctic sea ice, considered a harbinger for the rest of the world — and despite what some may think, this Arctic melting is not offset by sea ice in Antarctica.
About half of the gas spewed into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean and land, especially by plants and trees which suck in high levels of carbon in the spring and summer while they grow — though deforestation has a significant negative effect on the amount of carbon that can be absorbed.
While these activities temporarily drop the levels of atmospheric CO2, much is still absorbed into the oceans. This carbon has devastating effects on the ocean, especially by increasing its acidification, which puts a good portion of marine life at risk.
Along with CO2, the model also shows carbon monoxide levels, shown in darker shades of colour. This powerful greenhouse gas is mostly produced by fires in the Southern hemisphere, before it too is picked up by winds that take it around the planet.
NASA was able to use a supercomputer along with ground measurements and atmospheric data to create this visualisation, but in the future they will have even more information from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite, which launched in July.
Check out the full visualisation video below.
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