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Carbon and Our Changing Climate

Carbon and Our Changing Climate

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Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon and our civilizations are built on carbon. We need carbon, but that need is also entwined with one of the most serious problems facing us today: global climate change.

Forged in the heart of aging stars, carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe. Most of Earth’s carbon – about 65,500 billion metric tons – is stored in rocks. The rest is in the ocean, atmosphere, plants, soil and fossil fuels.

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Over the long term, the carbon cycle seems to maintain a balance that prevents all of Earth’s carbon from entering the atmosphere, or from being stored entirely in rocks. This balance helps keep Earth’s temperature relatively stable, like a thermostat.

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Today, changes in the carbon cycle are happening because of people. We disrupt the cycle by burning fossil fuels and clearing land. Our Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite is providing our first detailed, global measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Earth’s surface. OCO-2 recently released its first full year of data, critical to analyzing the annual CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

The above animation shows carbon dioxide released from two different sources: fires and massive urban centers known as megacities. The animation covers a five day period in June 2006. The model is based on real emission data and is then set to run so that scientists can observe how greenhouse gas behaves once it has been emitted.

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All of this extra carbon needs to go somewhere. So far, land plants and the ocean have taken up about 55 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere while about 45 percent has stayed in the atmosphere. The below animation shows the average 12-month cycle of all plant life on Earth (on land and in the ocean). Eventually, the land and oceans will take up most of the extra carbon dioxide, but as much as 20 percent may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

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Excess carbon in the atmosphere warms the planet and helps plants on land grow more. Excess carbon in the ocean makes the water more acidic, putting marine life in danger. Forest and other land ecosystems are also changing in response to a warmer world. Some ecosystems – such as thawing permafrost in the Arctic and fire-prone forests – could begin emitting more carbon than they currently absorb. 

To learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/carbonclimate/.

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