Mapping Carbon

NASA/JPL-Caltech. Click to enlarge.
NASA/JPL-Caltech. Click to enlarge.

Mapping Carbon

John Reid


After ten years in the planning and numerous technical setbacks and glitches (which included a rocket failure) NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 2 (OCO-2) is finally sending high quality data back to earth. The satellite makes continuous, precise measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentrations over most of the planet by means of absorption spectroscopy. The diagram is a compilation of mean atmospheric CO2 concentrations for the 6 week period period commencing 1st October 2014.

Hopefully this satellite is likely to be returning similar data for many years into the future so these results are only a tentative “sneak preview” of what is to come. They were obtained during northern fall and southern spring. Since CO2 concentrations are most likely influenced by biological processing in plants, animals and fungi, future measurements in other seasons will be of prime importance in understanding the earth’s carbon cycle.

World Vegetation Map
World Vegetation Map

Nevertheless there are already some real surprises, viz.:

  1. Over land, CO2 concentrations are dominated by vegetation type – the high concentrations over South America, Southern Africa and Indonesia correspond closely to tropical evergreen rainforest and tropical deciduous forest and scrub (click on global vegetation map above).
  2. There are unexpected but significant concentrations over the oceans. The concentrations in the South Atlantic and near Madagascar may well be due to an eastward drift from the nearby continental concentrations due to the general easterly trend in atmospheric circulation. However the concentrations east of Japan and north of New Zealand cannot be explained in this way, nor can the concentration near the southern tip of Greenland. Some of these have been attributed to tectonic acivity in an article by Prof. Martin Hovland of the University of Bergen.
  3. There is little evidence that CO2 from industry plays much part in the total scheme of things. Western Europe as a whole shows little evidence of excess CO2 production apart from the Eastern side of the Adriatic Sea where there is little industrial activity.  England appears to have been a net sink for CO2 in autumn.
  4. The high concentrations over China may well be due to industrial activity but it could also be attributed to excess emissions from subtropical broadleaf rainforest at this time of the year. We will have to wait another six months to get a clearer picture. A similar argument applies to the SE corner of the United States

It is already obvious that these observations are a serious embarrassment to NASA’s front office. NASA’s caption to this map reads as follows:

Global Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from Oct. 1 through Nov. 11, as recorded by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. Carbon dioxide concentrations are highest above northern Australia, southern Africa and eastern Brazil. Preliminary analysis of the African data shows the high levels there are largely driven by the burning of savannas and forests. Elevated carbon dioxide can also be seen above industrialized Northern Hemisphere regions in China, Europe and North America.

This cannot go unchallenged:

above northern Australia,

er, that country is called Indonesia, I-n-d-o-n-e-s-i-a. Perhaps it is politically incorrect to name a third world country in this context.

high levels driven by burning of savannas and forests

Indeed? Levels that massively exceed the industrial emissions of Western Europe? I look forward to the peer-reviewed paper on this one. That certainly is a lot of grass.

Elevated carbon dioxide can also be seen above industrialized …Europe Where? I must be looking at a different map.

The situation may well change as more data becomes available – new ideas will certainly emerge and it may be decades before it is all understood.

The fact remains that in six weeks this satellite changed the face of climate science. NASA should be proud of the people who carried this through and not seek to obfuscate their findings.