A new NASA animation shows how CO2 flows through our atmosphere — and how human activity has affected that cycle.
Carbon in our atmosphere circulates seasonally. In the Northern Hemisphere, carbon builds up in winter as plants that absorb carbon die and release their carbon stores. Those emissions rise until the start of spring, when new carbon-eating plants emerge.
But as humans pump more carbon into the atmosphere, the cycle has changed. Large weather patterns now play a much bigger role in how carbon is redistributed during the cycle.
For instance, in late winter 2015, researchers found an El Niño event actually stopped the sea-to-air transfer of carbon in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They noted these fluctuations increased the number of wildfires in Indonesia and droughts in the Amazon rainforest.
And as carbon-eating plants burned up, more and more carbon was released. Researchers say El Niño added an extra 2.5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere.
From here, NASA wants to track how much carbon certain cities and natural landmasses give off. The agency is already using its Orbiting Carbon Observatory to track the carbon given off by the city of Los Angeles and by Yasur, a volcano on an island in the Pacific.