This NASA Simulation Highlights Why Climate Change Research Is Essential

It’s like a snowglobe, but with harmful greenhouse gas emissions in place of the snowflakes.

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Dec 21 2016, 1:00pm

GIF: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Kathryn Mersmann & Matthew Radcliff

As President-elect Donald Trump announces his Cabinet picks, it's become clear that his administration will be deeply influenced by fossil fuel executives and some outright climate change deniers. In keeping with that theme, Robert Walker, Trump's senior space advisor, has suggested that NASA should shift its focus away from Earth science and climate change, which he called "politically correct environmental monitoring" in an interview with The Guardian.

This recently released NASA simulation of the global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) cycle offers a powerful counterpoint to the Trump team's push to marginalize climate change research.

Video: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Kathryn Mersmann & Matthew Radcliff

The visualization shows atmospheric CO2 circulating around the world in unprecedented detail across a year-long timescale, from September 1, 2014 and August 31, 2015. The choice to depict Earth's surface as a flattened map projection makes the whole thing seem like a scene inside a snowglobe, with the festive snowflakes subbed out for toxic greenhouse gas emissions.

The simulation is based on high-resolution observations sourced from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite, launched in July 2014. OCO-2 delivers nearly 100,000 CO2 readings per day, which is so much information that this short clip had to be rendered by the Discover supercomputer cluster at the NASA/Goddard Center for Climate Simulation. Forged by the combined brainpower of multiple NASA teams, the video reveals crucial insights about the "carbon flux," or the flow of carbon across land, sea, and air environments.

READ MORE: Trump Team Thinks NASA Should Study Planets, Just Not the One We Live On

"We can't measure the flux directly at high resolution across the entire globe," said OCO-2 team member Lesley Ott, a carbon cycle scientist based at NASA Goddard, in a statement. "We are trying to build the tools needed to provide an accurate picture of what's happening in the atmosphere and translating that to an accurate picture of what's going on with the flux. There's still a long way to go, but this [visualization] is a really important and necessary step in that chain of discoveries about carbon dioxide."

In other words, NASA has pioneered the most sophisticated climate observation tools in the world, and is on the brink of introducing even more accurate monitoring devices, including the next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) scheduled for launch in 2017.

Not only will cuts to NASA's Earth science and climate research divisions shatter the agency's momentum and leadership in those fields, it will result in an unthinkable net loss of valuable data about the intricacies of the carbon cycle and its impact on climate change. With so much at stake, it's important to reflect on whether the health of our planet and its inhabitants is an issue that should be sidelined over claims of political correctness.

Read more of Motherboard's climate change coverage:

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