NASA’s $800 million question: Where is the CO2 going?

A week ago tonight, NASA put about a half a billion dollars on a chip fired into space. The mission for the OCO-2 satellite? To find out where the carbon dioxide we emit is coming from, exactly, and where it is going, exactly, and why the uptake varies so enormously from year to year.

It’s one of the biggest questions in climate science.

OSO-2Sullivan

A week ago tonight, NASA put about a half a billion dollars on a chip fired into space. The mission for the OCO-2 satellite? To find out where the carbon dioxide we emit is coming from, exactly, and where it is going, exactly, and why the uptake varies so enormously from year to year.

It's one of the biggest questions in climate science. 

After a $300 million (or so) launch of a carbon observing satellite failed in 2009, the Obama administration asked Congress for more funding (back in 2010, when such things were possible) and NASA tried again to launch at 2:56 a.m. Wednesday. This cost another $500 million or so, but the scientists have a big question to answer. 

Here's my story about it for the Santa Barbara Independent. Photograph above is a composite from Jeff Sullivan, who generously offers it to share, and explains his process. It's about a four-minute shot. 

Finally, for those interested in natural mysteries, here's the crucial science question. 

In the words of the mission's cience team leader Dave Crisp:

“We’ve been slowly but surely increasing the inputs of carbon dioxide over time into the atmosphere, but it turns out that only about half that carbon dioxide stays there. Half of the carbon dioxide is disappearing somewhere. About a quarter is dissolving into the ocean waters, we know that from our measurements, and the other quarter is going somewhere into the land biosphere. Somewhere – but we don’t know where. Have any of you seen a new rainforest springing into existence anywhere over the last forty years or so?”

Crisp pointed out that levels of the carbon dioxide are at their highest levels in the atmosphere in at least 800,000 years, when temperatures were much warmer around the planet, and sea levels considerably higher. Yet for some reason absorption rates have not been steady.

“Although our inputs of carbon dioxide have been growing slowly and steadily over time, the amount that stays in the atmosphere varies dramatically. Sometimes almost 100% of the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere stays there, sometimes almost none. We don’t know why.”

Although the mission is intended to answer scientific questions, the precision and global sweep of the satellite could also encourage policy makers to strike international treaties to control the emissions of carbon dioxide because for the first time it may be possible to verify the exact amounts of carbon dioxide released on the surface. Crisp in a press briefing admitted being concerned by what might happen to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if ocean temperatures continue to rise.

“We’re concerned that over time as it warms up, due to climate change, that the ocean will actually hold less carbon dioxide than it does today. If you take a bottle of soda out of the refrigerator, and leave it out on the table for a little while, all the carbon dioxide goes away and it becomes flat. We’re concerned that as the ocean warns up due to climate change, it will actually hold less carbon dioxide than it does today, and that might be a big change.” 

Could this be a bigger story? Seems so to me. Put it in the subjects for further research category. 

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