Who’s putting all that CO2 into the air?

NASA’s mission team for the recently launched OCO-2 satellite has reported preliminary results on its performance and on observations of the atmosphere at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco . The goal is to map carbon dioxide concentration in the vertical column of air between the ground and the OCO-2 satellite, and to detect sources and changes of CO2.

Here is the NASA press release about the paper presented today:

Early Results from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 Mission
Time: Thursday, Dec. 18, 9 a.m. PST
In 2014, NASA launched four new missions to study our home planet, including the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 in July – NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide. This press conference will present early results from the OCO-2 mission. Fossil fuel combustion, deforestation and other human activities are adding almost 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, yet less than half of it stays airborne. The rest is apparently being absorbed by natural processes at the surface, whose identity and location are poorly understood. Ground-based carbon dioxide measurements accurately record the global atmospheric carbon dioxide budget and its trends but do not have the resolution or coverage needed to identify the “sources” emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or the natural “sinks” absorbing this gas. One way to improve the resolution and coverage of these measurements is to collect precise observations of carbon dioxide from an orbiting satellite. OCO-2 is NASA’s first satellite designed to measure atmosphere carbon dioxide with the accuracy, resolution and coverage needed to identify its sources and sinks. OCO-2 is currently recording more than 100,000 carbon dioxide measurements over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere each day. In addition, a new data product from OCO-2 that senses light emitted from the photosynthesis of plants has been developed. Over the next two years, these measurements are expected to revolutionize our understanding of the processes controlling the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide.

Graphics for the presentation are posted here.

The OCO-2 mission web page will post data after December 30, 2014.

NASA’s older MODIS satellite, launched in 1999, collected data on chlorophyll fluorescence from the massive algal bloom at the west end of Lake Erie last August. Read about the space-based monitoring of the rapid growth of the toxic phytoplankton bloom from an orbit 705 km above the Earth. Here is the explanation excerpt from NASA’s Giovanni News:

Conditions in the western end of Lake Erie at the end of July 2014 were perfect for the cyanobacteria Microcystis, a toxic phytoplankton species. High water temperature, low wind speeds, and an elevated nutrient load from higher-than-normal spring runoff set the stage for this disruptive event.

In principle, the higher resolution of satellite successors to OCO-2 might eventually enable detection of changes in the condition of Sylvan Lake although it is a small 42 square kilometre target. Until that high tech monitoring is demonstrated and validated, our own ground-based observations (look out your window, over the side of your boat, dip in your Secchi disk, or send a sample to the lab for Chlorophyll-a analysis) will still have to trigger the alarm for cyanobacterial blue-green algae blooms in Sylvan Lake.

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