Watch One Year Of Carbon Emissions Take Over The Planet

3 minute read

It’s hard to miss something that weighs 37 billion tons—especially when it’s all around us. Thirty-seven billion tons is the amount of fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide humans release into the atmosphere every year. We see the damage it does everywhere—from heat waves to floods to droughts to wildfires and more. But the CO2 itself? Entirely invisible. Until now.

In a striking new video, NASA has made visible the production—and, in some cases, absorption—of human-produced carbon dioxide for the entirety of the year 2021. Over that period, the CO2 in the atmosphere rose by 2.13 parts per million (PPM), marking the eleventh year in a row in which the increase exceeded 2 PPM. The most dramatic takeaway from the video is the outsized role the northern hemisphere plays in the global spread of greenhouse gasses, compared to the far less blameworthy south.

Space agency scientists drew the data for their video partly from observations made by weather satellites, including NASA’s GOES-17, the European Union’s Meteosat, and Japan’s GMS. Other information came from Earth-based monitoring of known greenhouse gas emitters—industrial areas in the developed world in particular, but also smaller contributions made by, say, the burning of crop waste in Africa. This data was fed into NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS), a computer-modeling tool that can turn raw information into eye-popping imagery—and in this case GEOS worked stunningly.

The model assigned four colors to the video it produced: orange represents fossil fuel emissions, red represents burning biomass, green represents land ecosystems, and blue represents the ocean.

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The video unspools over the course of the year and it is not until June that the south is truly shrouded in the north’s emissions. It takes that long partly because the equator operates as sort of an atmospheric berm, with hot air rising from the earth’s midline slowing north-south circulation. Ultimately, however, those billions of tons of carbon dioxide blow past this natural stop sign and cover the south as badly as the north.

For the first half of the year, before they’re obscured by CO2, Australia, Africa, and South America appear to flicker on and off from green to a neutral gray. That represents plant life absorbing carbon dioxide during the day and releasing it in a sort of vegetable respiration at night. The crop fires in Africa are visible too, and while these are relatively small contributors of CO2, they build up over time, because if the land is not fully replanted each season, it can alter the overall ecosystem’s ability to sequester atmospheric carbon.

If there is any good news in both the data and the video, it’s that not all of the CO2 tonnage humans pour into the air stays in the air. About half of the emissions are taken up by the land and the oceans, which act as carbon sinks, entraining the greenhouse gas and preventing it from accelerating climate change even further. The bad news is that there’s at least another 37 billion tons coming this year—and next year and the year after that. Until humans break their fossil-fuel habit, the planet will continue to choke on the results.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at