NASA Aims To Find Greenhouse Gas Sources From Orbit

For all those (few) who still deny the immediacy of global warming, ask yourself why NASA will relaunch, amid the world's current race to Mars, its Orbiting Carbon Observatory on Tuesday to glean a better understanding of climate change and the carbon dioxide emissions suspected of causing it.

Our understanding already appears to be standing on quite solid ground.

"Carbon dioxide generated by human activities amounts to only a few percent of the total yearly atmospheric uptake or loss of carbon dioxide from plant life and geo-chemical processes on land and in the ocean," said Gregg Marland, a professor in the Geology Department of Appalachian State University, in a NASA statement about the OCO-2's launch. "This may not seem like much, but humans have essentially tipped the balance."

Still not a believer? Just give a gander to some by-now-ancient images from NASA that already do a pretty good job chronicling climate change.

Above, according to a NASA slideshow, the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica is seen "calving" a smaller floating glacier. Though this phenomenon happens a few times a decade, this new "calf" is twice a big as scientists typically record in the area, leading some to point to warming trends as the prime suspect.

Below, a little closer to home, NASA images of Lake Tahoe show the effects of severe drought that's been plaguing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. How severe? Last year, the state of California registered the least amount of rainfall since recording began in 1850.

Global Warming Is Real

These are the types of targeted, dedicated time-lapse images needed to best understand the crisis, researchers say. But NASA also plans to use the OCO-2, a project that will cost $468 million, to better understand some persistent unknowns, such as where all of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from and what might be able to be done to mitigate climate problems as they become evident.

Marland attempts to paint a layman's picture, from the stars looking down upon the Earth.

"If you visualize a column of air that stretches from Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will identify how much of that vertical column is carbon dioxide, with an understanding that most is emitted at the surface," he said. "Simply, it will act like a plane observing the smoke from forest fires down below, with the task of assessing where the fires are and how big they are. Compare that aerial capability with sending a lot of people into the forest looking for fires. The observatory will use its vantage point from space to capture a picture of where the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide are, rather than our cobbling data together from multiple sources with less frequency, reliability and detail."

This birds'-eye view will be coupled with ground-based research, he said, to hopefully attain something that people someday might consider a viable solution:

"By tackling the problem from both perspectives, we'll stand to achieve an independent, mutually compatible view of the carbon cycle. And the insight gained by combining these top-down and bottom-up approaches might take on special significance in the near future as our policymakers consider options for regulating carbon dioxide across the entire globe."

It's either this or continue to stand by and watch as the Earth melts away one drop at a time, as this NASA film depicts:

[Images courtesy of NASA]