Carbon-monitoring OCO-2 satellite confirms that El Nino weather boosts CO2

Kevin Frayer

Kevin Frayer

The 2015-16 El Nino did impact the atmosphere of the globe, besides causing severe heat and drought in tropical regions of South America, Africa and Indonesia.

The spikes recorded by OCO-2 indicated that the carbon dioxide emissions got a 50 percent increase in the year 2015-16 as compared to the average carbon emissions of preceding years. Now, scientists think they know why.

"The team's findings imply that if future climate brings more or longer droughts, as the last El Nino did, more carbon dioxide may remain in the atmosphere, leading to a tendency to further warm Earth", Eldering added.

Key drivers of this change in carbon emissions were lower precipitation in South America and increased temperatures in Africa.

After analyzing 28 months of data collected from OCO-2, lead author of the study, Junjie Liu of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), revealed that the three tropical reasons released 2.5 (a billion tonnes) more carbon into the atmosphere in 2015-16 than they did in 2011.

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Colorado State University's Scott Denning says a vicious cycle might await if future climates reflect similar conditions of heat and drought.

One of the crowning achievements of modern environmental science is the Keeling curve, the detailed time series of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) begun in 1958 that has enabled deep insights into the mechanisms of global climate change. Data from the satellite will help scientists understand the global carbon cycle-and how that cycle may change in response to global warming. The satellite can observe atmospheric Carbon dioxide and photosynthesis over large geographical areas.

Tropical forests in eastern Africa had normal rainfall, but the temperatures were much greater than normal. Higher-than-average temperatures combined with those climatic conditions to stress massive amounts of plant life, meaning there was less photosynthesis than normal - and thus less carbon was removed from the atmosphere than normal.

In tropical Asia, the increased carbon release was mostly due to biomass burning.

Another study that was part of a collection of five on the topic in Science, found "striking" seasonal changes in the carbon cycle across the Northern Hemisphere. Before then, Earth's atmosphere naturally contained about 595 gigatons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. With its impressive collection of observational capabilities, OCO-2 will enable measurements of atmospheric Carbon dioxide to be made with sufficient precision, resolution, and coverage to faithfully characterize its sources and sinks globally over the seasonal cycle, a long-standing goal in atmospheric and climate science.

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