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Psychedelic Video Shows a Year in the Life of Earth's Carbon Dioxide Pollution

In a hypnotic and beautiful three-minute video NASA scientists simulate how carbon dioxide pollution circulates through the Earth's atmosphere.
Image via NASA/K. Sharghi

NASA scientists have produced an elegant and hypnotic simulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions traveling through the Earth's atmosphere. The three-minute video is the most detailed representation of how wind patterns distribute carbon pollution after being emitted from sources like power plants and automobiles.

Dramatic differences in CO2 levels can be seen between the southern hemisphere and the heavily industrialized northern hemisphere. As plant and tree growth expands during the north's spring and summer, atmospheric concentrations of carbon are reduced because the world's biomass absorbs the gas during photosynthesis.


"While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it's fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale," said Bill Putman, lead scientist on the project. "Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe."

An ultra-high-resolution NASA computer model has given scientists a stunning new look at how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere travels around the globe. (Video by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Sharghi)

The video was produced using a computer model called GEOS-5, created by scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. GEOS-5 is one of the highest resolution models ever created. It uses CO2 measurements collected from ground-level sources and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite, launched by NASA in July. The footage simulates the movement of CO2 in the atmosphere during 2006.

CO2 is one of many greenhouse gases. As concentrations of these gases increase in the atmosphere, heat that would otherwise escape into space is trapped, leading to higher surface and ocean temperatures. Higher temperatures, in turn, cause ocean and land ice to melt, sea levels to rise, and more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution atmospheric concentrations of CO2 averaged 270 parts per million (ppm). But as humans began to burn large quantities of fossil fuels in the mid-18th century, in order to heat homes, power factories, and propel automobiles, that level began to rise. In the spring of 2014 the level of CO2 in the atmosphere across much of the northern hemisphere exceeded 400ppm.


397.30 parts per million (ppm) CO2 in air 16-Nov-2014 — Keeling_Curve (@Keeling_curve)November 17, 2014

Since the 1960s scientists have warned of the consequences of high levels of greenhouse gases, like CO2, in the atmosphere, and diplomatic efforts are underway to adopt an international agreement in 2015 that would limit the amount of the gas nations are allowed emit.

Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen and a team of researchers wrote in a 2008 scientific paper: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385ppm to at most 350ppm, but likely less than that."

Here's why China's climate pledge might not be such a great leap forward. Read more here.

Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman