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The job of monitoring Earth's carbon cycle and humanity's carbon dioxide emissions is increasingly supported from above, thanks to the terabytes of data pouring down to Earth from satellites.
Five papers published in Science today provide data from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission. They show Earth's carbon cycle in unprecedented detail, including the effects of fires in Southeast Asia, the growth rates of Amazonian forests, and the record-breaking rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the 2015-16 El Niño.
Satellite - Study - Weeks - Biomass - Loss
Another satellite study released two weeks ago revealed rapid biomass loss across the tropics, showing that we have been overlooking the largest sources of terrestrial carbon emissions. While we may worry about land clearing, twice as much biomass is being lost from tropical forests through degradation processes such as harvesting.
The next step in our understanding of Earth's carbon dynamics will be to build sensors, satellites and computer models that can distinguish human activity from natural processes.
Satellites - Emissions
Can satellites see human-made emissions?
The idea of using satellites to keep track of our efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions is enticing. Current satellites can't do it, but the next generation is aiming to support the monitoring at the level of countries, regions and cities.
Current - Satellite - Sensors - CO₂ - Levels
Current satellite sensors can measure CO₂ levels in the atmosphere, but can't tell whether it is coming from the natural exchange of carbon with the land and oceans, or from human activities such as fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation.
Likewise, satellites cannot distinguish between natural and human changes in leaf area cover (greenness), or the capacity of vegetation to absorb CO₂.
Resolution - Satellites - Increases - OCO-2 - Features
But as the spatial resolution of satellites increases, this will change. OCO-2 can see features as small as 3 square km while the previous purpose-built satellite GOSAT is limited to observing features no smaller than about 50 square km.
As resolution improves, we will...
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