NASA Satellite Reveals Biggest Greenhouse Gas Spike In 2,000 Years

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) has come back with some new and troubling findings on a carbon dioxide leak that resulted in a dramatic greenhouse gas spike during the 2015-16 El Niño period.

According to a report from, the OCO-2 satellite emerged as an “important and unique” tool for analyzing upticks in greenhouse gas, having been launched in 2014, right before the record-high greenhouse gas spike that took place during the recent El Niño event. Working together with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, OCO-2 returned the biggest annual atmospheric carbon dioxide increases “in at least 2,000 years” in both 2015 and 2016. Furthermore, there were three tropical land regions that released an additional 2.5 gigatons of carbon or more into the atmosphere, as compared to data from 2011.

As noted by NOAA, El Niño is the warm half of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which is a term for the temperature changes between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central part of the Equatorial Pacific region. Like its colder half, La Niña, El Niño events can last nine to 12 months, but there are times when these episodes could last for a few years. Additionally, El Niño has been blamed for droughts in tropical forests, and while these events usually take place every two to seven years, they are expected to get more “extreme” in coming years. That could mean more severe tropical forest droughts and even greater greenhouse gas spikes going forward.

“If future climate is more like this recent El Niño, the trouble is the Earth may actually lose some of the carbon removal services we get from these tropical forests, and then CO2 will increase even faster in the atmosphere,” said OCO-2 science team member Scott Denning, as quoted by BBC News.

Talking about how the OCO-2 satellite works, deputy project scientist Annmarie Eldering of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab explained that the observatory takes approximately 100,000 direct and daily carbon dioxide measurements, covering the Amazon and South America’s other tropical forests, as well as those in Africa and the countries surrounding Indonesia. The satellite goes from one pole to the other, making its way around our planet and tracking carbon dioxide levels in various parts of the world. The satellite also measures the rate of photosynthesis by detecting levels of fluorescent chlorophyll in ground vegetation. Together, these statistics make it easier for scientists to detect greenhouse gas spikes in different parts of Earth.

Isolating specific tropical forests and regions responsible for the recent spike, the researchers determined that the three forest regions combined to make up close to a third of the carbon dioxide related to human activities during the 2015-16 El Niño period. The Amazon basin, in particular, went through its most severe drought in three decades due to the massive greenhouse gas spike. In Africa, plants were decomposing at a quicker rate and simultaneously releasing more carbon dioxide and soaking in less of the gas. And in Indonesia, forest fires were cited as the main reason for the more severe carbon dioxide releases in tropical Asia.

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