The Mystery of Carbon Sequestration
by Tamar Burton
On July 2, the United Launch Alliance Delta II carrying NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) satellite launched. The observatory was sent to orbit to measure the global distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in the Earth’s climate. Since the 1950’s scientists have measured carbon dioxide from ground level, towers and above ground using aircraft within a limited network of 100 monitoring stations. The orbiting OCO-2 will improve measurements within the atmosphere and is expected to return between 100,000 and 200,000 measurements of carbon dioxide from across the Earth daily for at least 2 years.
The missions primary science objective is to take measurements to locate sources of carbon and carbon sinks and get a more complete understanding of the geographic distribution of sinks of carbon dioxide emissions located on Earth. The three major sinks for human carbon emissions are the atmosphere, the oceans and the land (forests, grasslands, soils). This process will also determine how these carbon sources and sinks vary by month, season, and year.
According to David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California:
"Scientists currently don’t know exactly where and how Earth’s oceans and plants have absorbed more than half the carbon dioxide that human activities have emitted into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era."
"Because of this, we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes. For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes."
The mission engineers and scientists admittedly won’t provide data for the purpose of convincing climate-change deniers to listen to scientific consensus. The data will instead be used to aid scientists in learning the details of targeting research for the purpose of gaining more information about future carbon sequestration and the potential for sinks becoming sources of emissions.
To learn more about Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, visit oco.jpl.nasa.gov