Stunning NASA Visualization Reveals Global CO2 Lifecycle

Last Fall, NASA released a stunning data visualization video that shows how carbon dioxide flows around the world. Built at NASA's Goddard Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, the program's "Nature Run" visualization software makes it easy to see large clouds of the greenhouse gas pour into the atmosphere and float and swirl from continent to continent. 

Ironically, just months before in the spring of 2014, the world got a wake up call. According to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, atmospheric CO2 hit the psychological threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history. But despite CO2's crucial link to global warming, a lot remained unknown about how the invisible gas actually travels through the atmosphere. 

Goddard’s scientists had been tweaking a “beta” version of the Nature Run for years, and finally released it and the video to the scientific community at the SC14 supercomputing conference in New Orleans last November. 

“While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it’s fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale,” said Bill Putman, lead scientist on the project from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe.”

Seasonal changes

Watching the video's compressed timeline between May 2005 to June 2007, two key points become obvious. The first is that most CO2 emissions come from the Northern Hemisphere, as the video's red clouds of now-visible gas flow from industrial clusters in the United States, Europe, and Asia (particularly China) and disperse across the globe.

The second is that much of that carbon dioxide is eventually absorbed by forests. As the video changes from spring into summer, the vivid red plumes of gas begin to dissolve and disappear, sucked up by photosynthesizing plants. Then, as plants grow dormant in the winter, the clouds of CO2 reappear like clockwork.  

Accuracy is heightened by the precise simulation of winds, clouds, water vapor, and airborne particles such as black carbon dust, sea salt, and emissions from industry and volcanoes.

Petabytes of data

Nature Run is part of a program which is fed reams of data on atmospheric conditions and the emission of greenhouse gases along with both natural and manmade particulates. The model was left to run for 75 days to simulate the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere at one of the highest-resolutions ever created. 

The resolution is 64 times greater than typical global climate models. While most other climate simulations visualize variables on grid boxes 50 kilometers (31 miles) wide, Nature Run dives into much greater detail by amassing data found in grid boxes only 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) wide.

To crunch this much data, the Nature Run simulation was run on the NASA Center for Climate Simulation’s supercomputer cluster at Goddard Space Flight Center. The end result was nearly four petabytes (million billion bytes).


Will this technology make climate change more understandable?