The carbon dioxide sniffing satellite (Day 57)

Space travel may not be the natural territory of chemical engineers, but earlier this month NASA launched a satellite which will be of great interest to many in the energy sector and those interested in climate change.

On 2 July 2014, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its mission is to study the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide globally and provide scientists with a better idea of how carbon is contributing to climate change.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory - NASA JPL - Caltech

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL – Caltech)

From the middle of August the satellite will begin gathering detailed global measurements — around 100,000 of them – of the Earth’s carbon every day, answering important questions about precisely where carbon is coming from and where it’s being stored. It will map the globe every 16 days and will continue for the next two years.

The mission will use three high-resolution spectrometers to measure how carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen absorb sunlight reflected off the Earth’s surface when viewed in the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has increased from about 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution (1750) to more than 400 parts per million today. The recent rate of change is both dramatic and unprecedented.

As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, carbon dioxide levels have risen by 40 parts per million in just the last 20 years. Previous increases of that size took 1,000 years or longer. Analyses of ice core samples from Greenland and Antarctica reveal that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are significantly higher today than at any time in that record, which spans 800,000 years.

Studies have calculated that a doubling of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide results in an increase of about 5 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) in average global temperatures. Temperature increases are even greater at Earth’s poles.

During the 20th century, temperatures around the world increased on average by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degree Celsius). Scientists attribute the increase primarily to increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by humans.

In just the 10 years from 1995 to 2005, the amount of climate warming due to carbon dioxide concentrations increased by 20 per cent, the largest change for any decade in at least the last 200 years, or since the Industrial Revolution.

These alarming statistics will be familiar to many of you and the implications for the planet. Hopefully, the OCO-2 satellite will provide new measurements that can be combined with other ground and aircraft measurements to answer important questions about the processes that regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide’s role in the carbon cycle and climate.

We still need to take action now, but the information provided by OCO-2 will help engineers, policymakers, politicians and business leaders make better decisions to ensure climate stability and retain our quality of life.

One thought on “The carbon dioxide sniffing satellite (Day 57)

  1. The is interesting but does not address a) the elephant in the room – the growth of the human population, b) other major greenhouse gases such as methane and c) the behavioural changes required by those many in the developed world to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

    We need to address behavioural changes ASAP and not wait for the results from the satellite. Chemical engineers can provide much of the data required to influence behavioural change. A lot of the problems are created by general ignorance rather than an unwillingness to change.


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