Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

Q & A: Michael Lefksy on Measuring Trees From Space

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Colorado State University researcher Michael Lefsky recently published the first global map of forest heights using data from an radar-like laser instrument — the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) — aboard NASA’s IceSat satellite. The work should help scientists build an inventory of how muchcarbon the world’s forests store and how fast that carbon cycles throughecosystems and back into the atmosphere. We spoke with Michael to learn more about the work behind his work…

What on Earth: How did you get into this line of work?

Lefsky: I went to the University of Virginia to study the modeling of forest structure. My graduate advisor was working with NASA, and one day he came back with a single waveform lidar graph, one of the first ever produced. That was it: I knew this was what I wanted to work on.

What on Earth: What do you mean by forest structure and why go to the trouble of studying it?

Lefsky: We were looking at things like the size and number of stems in forests. We were also looking at how forests change over time and across landscapes. It’s critical to understand forest structure if you want to understand how much carbon forests are storing. You need to know whether a forest is growing, in stasis, or has been disturbed. We used to study this kind of thing by basically counting stems. But when I looked at that waveform lidar data, I could see it was a record of exactly the same thing, but from a completely different perspective.

What on Earth: I’m guessing you could collect in seconds the same amount of data it takes weeks to get in the field?

Lefsky: Actually, less than a second.

What on Earth: But are there insights that you can get from the ground that you can’t get from space?

Lefsky: Sure, but you have to keep the scale in mind. In the field, we basically estimate forest height by measuring diameter of trunks at breast height. That’s sort of like trying to study a person’s size and metabolism by measuring the diameter of their ankles. Lidar gives you a whole bunch of new information about the vertical structure of forest canopy. This is something that’s hardly ever investigated from the ground, or could only be investigated with great difficulty.

What on Earth: What are the most satisfying and frustrating aspects of working with remote sensing data?

Lefsky: I love what I do. I am incredibly lucky. I don’t really see frustrations, just challenges. In this case, there are enormous challenges involved with working on a completely new kind of data and figuring out how to process such large amounts of information. The flip side is that coming to new levels of understanding about what’s going on in the world is incredibly satisfying.


What on Earth: If there was one thing you wish people knew about your science, what would it be?

Lefsky: I wish people knew what tremendous things NASA’s Earth Science Division does for our understanding and ability to plan for the future of the global environment. People think space shuttle. People think the Moon. I think that the Earth science part of NASA is woefully under-appreciated.

— Adam Voiland, NASA’sEarth Science News Team

The map (left) was created by NASA’s Earth Observatory, using data provided by Michael Lefsky (above).   

Are the Oceans Really Stuffed to the Gills with Carbon Dioxide?

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Two months ago, NASA’s Timothy Hall and colleagues published a study that described how they had estimated the amount of manmade carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean since the start of the industrial era.

Oceans absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the atmosphere, so sorting out a long-term record of carbon uptake is of great interest to climate scientists.

To create their record of the ocean’s uptake of carbon, Hall and Samar Khatiwala, the lead author of the study, devised a clever mathematical technique that proved to be a considerable advance. When Hall’s study appeared in the journal Nature, he assumed the creation of this new long-term, continuous record would headline the news.

But journalists gravitated toward something else entirely: a brief mention that the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean seemed to be experiencing, as the researchers put it, “a small decline in the rate of increase in the last few decades.”

“Seas Grow Less Effective at Absorbing Emissions”, one headline trumpeted. Another article compared the world’s oceans to a fish “stuffed to the gills” with carbon dioxide and another reported a “sudden and dramatic drop in the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the sea.

Given the caveats included in the original study, all of this caught Hall slightly off guard. I’ll let Hall, who summarized his reactions to the coverage for What On Earth, pick the story up from here:

My coauthors and I had viewed the ability to estimate the history of ocean uptake of anthropogenic carbon as the highlight of the paper. Previously, observationally-based estimates had only provided a few snapshots in time, and we were proud of the cleverness of our techniques.

It seems clever mathematical techniques, however, don’t make good press releases. Interestingly, coverage of the paper has not focused on the fact that we can estimate the uptake history. Instead it has focused on apparent reductions in the rate of uptake over the last 2 decades.

The figure below shows our estimate of ocean uptake since 1775. The first impression is the rapid increase since 1950, coinciding with the rapid rise in carbon emissions to the atmosphere. The oceans have prevented about 1/3 of anthropogenic carbon emissions from accumulating in the atmosphere. A closer reading of the curve reveals a reduction in the uptake’s rate of increase after about 1980, even while emissions continue to increase.

Scientists have long suspected that ocean carbon uptake would eventually be unable to keep pace with rising emissions. Basic aqueous chemistry tells us that, as dissolved carbon in seawater increases, seawater becomes less able to absorb new carbon. Eventually, the absorption saturates. The slowing down of the increase rate may be an early signal of this saturation.

However, recent changes in uptake were not our focus when we performed the study, and more importantly we did not analyze the statistical significance of the slowdown. We plan further analysis on these trend variations. What we can say is that there are physical reasons to suspect a reduction in the ocean’s capacity to keep pace with increasing carbon emissions, and that there are now strong observational hints for recent reductions.

Hall advises reading this story, which also appeared in Nature. It’s less dramatic and more technical than most of media accounts, but it is a more accurate representation of the paper.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team
   Image Credit: (EPOD/K. Chrisodoulopoulus)

Richard Alley on Earth's Biggest Climate Control Knob

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Click here for a multimedia presentation of Richard Alley’s AGU talk.  (Credit: AGU)

Scientists aren’t known for being the savviest of public speakers, but Penn State’s Richard Alley is that rare researcher who knows how to give a talk. Alley — who’s willing to sing, dance, and gesticulate vigorously to get a point across — gave a lecture about carbon dioxide to an overflow crowd of scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting this year that’s well worth watching.

Blogger and University of Toronto computer scientist Steve Easterbrook has an excellent blow-by-blow of the talk, but the heart of it came down to this point, which Alley made on his last slide:

An increasing body of science indicates that CO2 has been the most important controller of Earth’s climate. 

If you want the details, (and the details are a pleasure to sit through in this case because of Alley’s gregarious speaking style) AGU has posted video and slides of the full talk. Still want to know more about carbon dioxide? NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released new details about the distribution of carbon dioxide in the troposphere, the region of Earth’s atmosphere that is located between 5 to 12 kilometers, or 3 to 7 miles, above Earth’s surface. (JPL also released a ten question quiz about the gas that you can access here).  

Meanwhile, Alley participated in a NASA science update back in 2005 that explored the nature of sea level rise, a topic that NASA researchers continue to investigate and that you can explore interactively using our Sea Level Viewer.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Greenhouse Molecules Laid Bare

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The Earth is a bit like the human body; its temperature is very finely balanced, and when it gets slightly out of whack, big things can happen. In the case of our home planet, gases in the atmosphere play a vital role in maintaining this delicate equilibrium, by balancing the absorption and emission of all the electromagnetic radiation (microwaves, infrared waves, ultraviolet light and visible light, for example) reaching the surface of the Earth.

As reported recently, the Earth is getting warmer. Scientists believe the main driver behind this warming trend is rising levels of man-made greenhouse gases. These gases, which we pump out into the air, act to trap heat radiation near the surface of the Earth that would otherwise be sent back out into space. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the Paris Hilton of greenhouse gases, and gets a lot of face time because its concentration in the atmosphere has increased relatively rapidly since the Industrial Revolution. But methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are also important agents of global warming. Some of them are actually much more potent than CO2 and they stick around for hundreds to thousands of years longer. This has some scientists concerned that these B-listers could actually impact global temperatures significantly more than CO2.

greenhouse warming cartoon

In a new paper, Partha Bera and colleagues at NASA’s Ames Research Center and Purdue University put these gases under the microscope to find out exactly why they are such powerful heat trappers. They focus on CFCs, HFCs and PFCs — all chemicals containing fluorine or chlorine — that are used in medicine, fridges, and as solvents, among other things. By probing the molecular structure of these compounds, they have found that molecules containing several fluorine atoms are especially strong greenhouse gases, for two reasons. First, unlike many other atmospheric molecules, they can absorb radiation that makes it through our atmosphere from space. Second, they absorb the radiation (and trap the heat) very efficiently, because of the nature of the fluorine bonds inside them. (In technical terms, fluorine atoms create a larger separation of electric charge within the molecule, and this helps the molecular bonds absorb electromagnetic radiation more effectively.) HFCs and other fluorine-based gases have been called “the worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of.” Now we know why.

Until now, scientists had not looked in detail at the underlying physical or chemical causes that make some molecules better global warmers than others. Bera and colleagues say that their work should help improve our “understanding [of] the physical characteristics of greenhouse gases, and specifically what makes an efficient greenhouse gas on a molecular level.” They hope their findings will be used by industry to develop more environmentally-friendly materials.

Amber Jenkins, NASA’s Global Climate Change team 

How Do Global Soot Models Measure Up?

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A image from a simulation that shows the spread of black carbon aerosols in Asia. Areas where the air was thick with
the pollution particles are white, while lower concentrations are transparent purple. (Credit:
Earth Observatory)

As NASA atmospheric scientist Eric Wilcox recently told Time magazine, emerging evidence suggests that a short-lived type of air pollution called black carbon—known popularly as soot—can exacerbate global warming by absorbing incoming solar radiation.

Yet pinning down precisely how much the black carbon exacerbates warming is no easy task, research conducted by Goddard Institute for Space Studies climatologist Dorothy Koch suggests. The study, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics tracked how the predictions from 17 global black carbon models compared with actual measurements collected by airplane, satellite, and ground-based sensors. It shows, among other things, that models generally underestimate black carbon’s warming effect on climate.

Koch tested all the models in three ways. In the simplest of the three, she compared the models’ predictions to the amount of black carbon measured at the surface, finding that they matched real life reasonably well.

Her second test compared the models’ predictions to black carbon measurements made higher in the atmosphere using airplanes, and the results were much less clear cut. Though the models usually had too much black carbon over pollution sources, most had too little over remote regions such as the Arctic.

Koch’s final and most important test looked at how much solar radiation black carbon actually absorbs, an indicator of the amount of warming the particles actually produce. Again, the results were mixed. The models were largely accurate over North America and Europe, but were not for areas that have high levels of black carbon such as Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon.

In a write-up on the Goddard Institute for Space Studies web site, Koch summarizes her findings this way:

We concluded from this study that most models have enough black carbon at ground level in polluted regions, too much in the atmosphere above source regions, but not enough in the Arctic where black carbon may play an important role in contributing to Arctic warming and ice/snow melt. The models’ soot generally does not absorb enough sunlight and therefore these models would underestimate black carbon heating effects. This probably results from underestimating the absorbing properties of the particles rather than the amount (mass) of black carbon.

Wondering how climate modelers can continue to close the gap between model predictions and reality? Koch put forward some advice on how to fine-tune the next generation of aerosols models. Her top three:

1) Account for mixing between black carbon and other components of the atmosphere,
2) Incorporate better measurements of particle size and source amount in some regions.
3) Continue to mine ongoing satellite and field campaigns for data about black carbon.

You can read more GISS science briefs and NASA news stories about black carbon here, here, and here.

–Adam Voiland, NASA’s Earth Science News Team