Artificial satellites aren’t just for national defense and GPS. They also play a role in studying the environment. Now, we have a satellite that can give us a detailed picture of the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels.
The satellite, dubbed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory or OCO, was supposed to start gathering data five years ago. However, equipment failure prevented that from happening. But last week NASA launched a second OCO satellite called OCO-2 (which, let’s be honest, is a much better name) and it can start gathering information on the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The Earth, in some sense, breathes. Through natural processes, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during some times of the year than others. Teasing out the human effect on this cycle and the climate is tricky, so precise measurements are key. It is a fact that the amount of carbon dioxide humans are dumping into the atmosphere is causing climate change, but there are still a lot of things we don’t yet understand.
One of the biggest mysteries is how oceans and forests manage to absorb about half of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Apparently, this is happening even as carbon dioxide levels are increasing–and we have no idea why. Scientists hope that the data collected by OCO-2 will help solve this mystery. This isn’t just knowledge for knowledge’s sake, though. According to Michael Gunson, a scientist working on this project, if we can figure this out it will allow us to better forecast the Earth’s future climate:
“Trying to get to a point of understanding the details of those processes will give us some insight into the future and what’s likely to happen over [the coming] decades, even if we continue to consume more and more fossil fuels and emit more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Gunson said.
But carbon dioxide is an invisible gas. How is a satellite supposed to take readings? It all has to do with chemistry. Every element absorbs different wavelengths of light, and we have the ability to measure that. We know the absorption pattern of carbon dioxide, so we can figure out where the gas is concentrated and where it’s being absorbed.
This isn’t the first satellite in orbit that takes carbon dioxide readings, but it will be the most prolific. The satellite will take a million measurements a day. If that sounds like a lot, it is. But it has to take a lot of measurements. At any time about two thirds of the Earth is covered with clouds, so it’s estimated that only about 100,000 of these million measurements will be useful.
NASA plans to make the data obtained by OCO-2 freely available in hopes that we can all put our heads together and come up with better climate predictions. Some scientists hope that this project can have an effect outside of science circles:
“We’d also hope that policy-makers might use some of this information to, for example, start to take a look at the impact of some of the emission-reduction activities that go on [and get a better understanding of] what’s happening globally,” added OCO program executive Betsy Edwards, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
OCO-2 may or may not change minds when it comes to climate change, but at least it will help us determine what we’re in for.