Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere recently went past the 400 parts per million (ppm) concentrations, the highest in at least 400,000 years. CO2 levels continue to rise at about 2 ppm a year.

Now NASA is tracking and investigating the world's carbon sources through data from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, its first satellite for measuring CO2 from the atmosphere to the Earth's surface.

The carbon map focuses on burning biomass and cities as two main sources of the pervasive gas, showing global emission hotspots. For instance, as indicated by red and white hotspots over the region, central Africa emerged as a source for huge biomass being burned potentially via forest fires.

On the other hand, blue clouds in East Asia - mostly China and Japan - indicate huge emission levels as put out by densely populated urban areas. Blue hotspots are also noticeable along highly populated American coasts.

These simulations will offer delegates of COP21, the upcoming Paris climate change conference, with detailed information on carbon sources around the globe and what targets and actions need to be set.

NASA considered these observations from space "a major step forward" in understanding climate change, as carbon dioxide is the largest man-made driver of this phenomenon.

Scientists from the space agency will continue to combine satellite data and field experiment data with super-high-resolution computer models, aiming to more accurately predict the response of carbon-absorbing ecosystems to warming climates.

"Precisely measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been one of the most difficult observations to make from space," said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) deputy project scientist Annmarie Eldering.

Atmospheric scientist Lesley Ott of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center emphasized the great role of the land and the ocean in mitigating CO2 effects. "Otherwise you would have carbon building up in the atmosphere twice as fast as it does now," Ott said.

The ocean's carbon absorption rate, however, could change given rising ocean temperatures and affected phytoplankton communities. Last week, NASA launched its ship and airborne studies to the North Atlantic Ocean, where satellites found "surprising" recent behavioral changes in phytoplankton.

The space agency will also embark on a 10-year probe into the future of carbon stores in fast warming Alaskan and Canadian regions, as thawing permafrost and fire-prone forests could start emitting more carbon than can be currently absorbed.

Upcoming NASA carbon missions include ACT-America, flying over eastern U.S. next year to study atmospheric carbon emissions, as well as the Coral Airborne Laboratory mission, which will fly over coral reefs in the world to observe their reaction to changing pH levels in the ocean.


Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis | Flickr

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