Home » NASA’s animations show earth’s carbon cycle in stunning detail

NASA’s animations show earth’s carbon cycle in stunning detail

by News Staff

The visuals of our planet under the influence of carbon dioxide gas are striking and otherworldly. NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office has created computer animations depicting the presence of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, offering a unique perspective on its distribution throughout 2021.

The animations highlight four major sources of carbon dioxide: fossil fuels, biomass burning, land ecosystems, and the oceans. One view focuses on North and South America, revealing the cyclic nature of plants absorbing and releasing CO2 during the winter months. Along the northeastern U.S. seaboard, intense emissions from fossil fuel burning are evident. Over the Amazon rainforest, the animations show a rise and fall of CO2, reflecting the process of plants absorbing carbon during the day and releasing it at night.

In Asia, the animations showcase both sources and sinks of CO2, with a notable concentration of fossil fuel emissions in China. Australia, on the other hand, exhibits higher absorption of the gas due to its lower population and consequently lower emissions.

Another perspective reveals the contribution of fossil fuel emissions in Europe and crop-clearing fires in Africa. These videos provide a clear and comprehensive visualization of the presence of this greenhouse gas and its atmospheric cycle.

Interestingly, carbon dioxide is not exclusive to Earth’s atmosphere. It is also found in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) detected traces of CO2 on an exoplanet, indicating its significance in planetary atmospheres.

The animations produced by NASA offer valuable insights into the distribution and dynamics of carbon dioxide, shedding light on its role in shaping our planet and its potential impact on other terrestrial worlds.

Carbon dioxide measurements over North and South America in 2021. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Carbon dioxide sources

Carbon dioxide (CO2) plays a crucial role in maintaining the climate cycles of our planet. It acts as a heat-trapping gas, allowing sunlight to warm the Earth and creating a habitable environment. Without this capability, our planet would be significantly colder and potentially host different forms of life. Therefore, we owe the livability of our world to this greenhouse gas. However, we also hold it responsible for climate change and its adverse consequences. When present in excessive amounts, along with other greenhouse gases like methane, it leads to excessive heat retention, contributing to global warming and its disastrous impacts.

The study of greenhouse-induced climate change is a complex undertaking, but it is evident that carbon dioxide is a significant component of this process. There are two primary sources of CO2 on Earth: natural and human-caused. The majority of atmospheric CO2 originates from natural sources, including the oceans, respiration of animals and plants, organic matter decomposition, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions. Additionally, scientists have identified naturally occurring CO2 deposits within the Earth’s crust that can serve as sources of this gas. Furthermore, there are “sinks” in the environment where CO2 is temporarily stored. These sinks encompass the oceans, especially the southern ocean, as well as soil and forests, which absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. However, these same sinks can also release their stored CO2.

On the other hand, human activities, known as anthropogenic sources, contribute significantly to the increase in CO2 levels. These activities encompass power generation, chemical production, agricultural practices, and transportation, with most of them relying on the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, such as natural gas, coal, and oil, are key contributors to human-caused CO2 emissions.

It is crucial to recognize the dual role of carbon dioxide in our world—its importance for maintaining a habitable climate and its detrimental effects when its concentrations become excessive due to human activities. Understanding the sources and sinks of CO2 is vital for comprehending and addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

The carbon cycle, which helps trace carbon dioxide on Earth. Credit: NOAA

How CO2 cycles over time

Carbon dioxide undergoes a natural “cycle,” circulating among the air, ground, oceans, plants, animals, and humans. Throughout the majority of history, this cycle maintained an average seasonal level of CO2 in the atmosphere at around 280 parts per million (ppm). However, in modern times, human activities such as burning fossil fuels have introduced additional CO2 into the cycle, leading to a significant alteration in atmospheric levels. This increase has occurred rapidly, with CO2 levels rising by approximately 50% in less than two centuries. Currently, the atmospheric CO2 concentration stands at approximately 441 ppm, and this figure continues to climb as we release more of this gas into the air. Climatologists predict that as CO2 levels rise, the global average temperature will also continue to increase.

When we examine average global temperatures since the advent of historical measurements, during a period when CO2 emissions were lower, Earth’s temperature has shown an upward trend of approximately 0.08°C (0.14°F) per decade. While natural variability does play a role, the growing presence of carbon dioxide increasingly contributes to this temperature rise. Over time, these incremental increases in temperature have accumulated to a rise of 2 degrees over the course of more than a century. This upward trend corresponds with the escalating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. A 2-degree increase is considerable, and even a 1-degree rise is sufficient to cause significant effects. To provide some perspective, in the distant past, when global averages dropped by a degree or two, Earth experienced a period known as the Little Ice Age.

The data demonstrates the impact of human activities on the Earth’s climate system, highlighting the correlation between rising CO2 levels and the subsequent rise in global temperatures. The observed changes underscore the need for effective measures to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.

Warming drives change

A temperature increase of two degrees may appear modest, but its implications extend far beyond mere numbers. This seemingly gradual warming exerts profound influence on our weather patterns, water cycles, and various environmental processes. This is why experts often employ the term “global warming” – not to imply instantaneous heat everywhere, but to convey the progressive rise in the average annual air temperature. In fact, in 2022, global records dating back to 1880 indicate that it was the sixth warmest year on record.

Through maps and animations derived from NASA satellite data, the intricate dynamics of CO2 sources, sinks, and cycles are vividly portrayed, offering a striking visual representation of the journey of this particular gas. The objective is to enable individuals to grasp, both visually and intellectually, the transformative alterations occurring within our atmosphere over time. These visualizations serve as valuable tools for enhancing public understanding of the complex processes shaping our planet’s climate.

Source: Universe Today

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