Both Beautiful and Disturbing, a New NASA Visualization Shows Carbon Dioxide Emissions Swirling Around the World

By Tom Yulsman | November 19, 2014 12:07 am

The following is a guest post from Paul McDivitt, a second-year master’s student studying journalism and mass communication research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is taking a course in journalistic blogging from me there. This is his second post at Discover. His first was at Keith Kloor’s Collide-a-Scape blog. Follow Paul on twitter @paulmcdivitt.

In the wake of an historic agreement between the United States and China to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a new visualization from NASA shows just how important these two nations are in combating climate change.

Courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the visualization — produced by an ultra-high-resolution computer model and spanning May 2005 to June 2007 — shows weather patterns sweeping plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, major sources of human-caused emissions are concentrated in North America and Asia, especially China, as well as Europe.

Before the industrial revolution, the global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stood at about 270 parts per million. In the visualization, dark blue shows concentrations of 375 parts per million (ppm). Red is indicative of 385 ppm, and light purple 395 ppm.

“I think we all think of CO2 as a well mixed gas within the atmosphere providing a rather uniform blanket across the globe,” said Bill Putman, lead scientist on the project and a research meteorologist at NASA. “This visualization really emphasizes the local distribution of the gas, the regional influences where the gas is trapped in a particular region like China due to its high emissions and also the great barriers in the large-scale atmospheric flow that are the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau that prevent weather systems from dropping into China and mixing the gas.”

In this view, you can see a closeup of emissions from China, a still-growing industrial powerhouse:

While an agreement between the United States and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, is important — as you can see in the large plumes gushing from both regions — the visualization is just as important for the low emissions it shows coming from places like Africa.

In this close-up of Africa, fires, both natural and human-caused, are the most noticeable source of emissions:

Many African countries are today among the most energy-impoverished in the world. With the continent’s population expected to quadruple by 2100, energy use will rise, along with carbon emissions.

Economic development has the potential to lift millions from poverty, and cheap energy sources such as coal have been essential to China’s rapid rise. But if Africa and other developing regions follow China’s example, we could all be in trouble, especially India and Africa, which are some of the most vulnerable regions to climate change.

With the United States and China on board, there are high expectations for a global climate agreement at next year’s United Nations conference in Paris. But any agreement will have to do more than cap and cut emissions from the world’s biggest polluters. It will also have to chart a responsible path for those parts of the world that still lack the benefits of economic development, and the energy that comes with it.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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