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.

  • Apu Bugolligosh

    Excuse me, but how about a visualization of the Earth’s oxygen and/or nitrogen for comparison? Until context is provided, this means exactly nil.

    • Kevin Johnson

      I thought it would be interesting to see the concentration of Argon in the atmosphere as well.

  • Robert Wagner

    Funny guy! WRONG, of course, but funny!

  • Tony Reno

    That the difference between deep sea blue and burning flame red is the different between 379 and 385 parts per million is pretty annoying to me.

    Anytime I see any chart I immediately ask, “Is the baseline anything other than zero?” And this time it is very much so. Next I ask about the range. Is the range percentage based, or is it capped low to spread out the visibility of the effect. And again that’s the case here.

    This is just a sophisticated from of cooking the graph. The graph would have been burning all year everywhere were 370 chosen as the red point, and almost never warm were 390 chosen as the blue point. Finally, were the range taken as from 0 to 100% then the range visible would have been seen as a nearly solid graph that stayed solid black the entire time.

    We are talking here about the difference between 0.0379% and 0.0385% and we are drawing those colors as different as ocean water and volcano fire. Imagine I wanted to become a millionaire. And when I got to 379 dollars you said, “You’re cold, you’re very cold, you’re seawater cold.” Then when I got just 6 dollars more you said, “Your red hot, you’re on fire.” That is exactly the percentages that the graph represents.

    The only thing alarming is how the choice of base and range were carefully chosen to represent the maximum amount of drama to the graph.

    I’m no climate change denier, but I am someone who finds it disturbing that things have to be represented in such over-the-top false color depictions.

    • Thomas Doubting

      This isn’t cooking the books. It’s what you need when you’re looking for the variation in CO2 levels. The scale is from lowEST to highEST concentrations, which is what we are interested in. If you wanted to see, for example, how CO2 varied over past millennia then you would need a wider scale far above and below the one shown.

      • Tony Reno

        You do understand that doing the scale from the lowest to the highest measured value means that it wouldn’t matter if the lowest to the highest were 1 PPM difference or 2,000 PPM difference, it would look equally “alarming” either way.

        Also, putting the strongest variation between the red and blue 6 PPM which is the difference coming off the east coast, makes it visually look far more alarming than the reality warrants. It’s scaling for the highest possible emotional impact, not for the greatest possible clarity in what all the events and variations are. To give the greatest possible clarity, blue would be low, and would be high, that way the spread would show variance over the range at a sensitivity similar to our eyes sensitivity.

        There was only one question on the scale designers mind when setting this scale, and that was, “What scale looks the scariest?” That is the only logical explanation for the scale that I can see.

        That said, I’m perfectly willing to be proven wrong..

        • Thomas Doubting

          Look at an indoor or outdoor thermometer. Does it show Kelvin scale going down to absolute zero? Of course not, it’s scaled for the normal variation in the expected range because that is what people are looking for when they look at a thermometer around the house. It isn’t to scare people this is just the range of variability in the context of a household thermometer. The map here is showing the seasonal variation in CO2; it is scaled for that purpose. The text clearly identifies the scale and states the pre-industrial range. No scare tactics just clear information. Just like the temperature weather map in today’s paper showing the actual temperatures and scaled for the year round range:

          • Tony Reno

            Well, I did say I was perfectly willing to be proven wrong. And those are excellent examples that prove me wrong.

            But, it also proves wrong the writer of the web page who’s “and disturbing” implies an ominous nature to the images. Yet if they are just showing the variation, then naturally the carbon producing areas will be on the higher side.

            Let me go back to your Kelvin Scale and the example page you showed as an example to give some comparison.

            That range is 15 to 78 degrees Farenheit which is a Kelvin change from 264 to 298, a 34 point and 11.5% difference. By comparison the blue to red difference here is a difference of less than 2%.

            Also the 15 to 78 degrees makes a major change in the human circumstances, a very noticeable difference in how the air feels. There is almost no change in the human perception of a .379 to .385 parts per million change.

            So I will grant you the possibility that nothing nefarious was intended, given your very lucid explanation and example.

            But whether it was intended or not, the author of the web page didn’t take the data as being merely informative, but as being disturbing. And this is because the scale was indicating that the distinction was on a similar range to the difference between temperatures in northern Minnesota and temperatures in Southern Florida, when they are in fact less than 1/5th of that in percentage changes, and certainly nowhere near that level in their impact on our life.

            So I am giving you that the image makers intent may not have been dishonest at all. But I continue to contend that the effect is one that has merited (to this web page author) the label “disturbing”

            When in reality, by your logic, the graph is merely showing that there is more atmospheric carbon produced by industrial nations than non-industrial ones, and more still in their larger cities than in their rural areas. This doesn’t seem surprising to me at all.

  • MPNavrozjee

    Is this normalized for the seasons and loss of foliage and subsequent biodegradation of leaves in the fall in the Northern Hemisphere?

    It is a large enough effect to move the numbers 5 ppm, and indeed that’s what seems to be happening, for the main part.

    Not that increase in atmospheric CO2 and global warming isn’t a phenomenon, just that this graph with a high baseline CO2 number is illustrating a phenomenon other that what the article implies it is.



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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