How does NOAA track atmospheric carbon, a contributor to climate change?


Carbon dioxide is one of the major factors determining global climate and has been increasing steadily since the Industrial Revolution due to fossil fuel burning and other human activities. NOAA has created a computer modeling tool, called CarbonTracker, which allows users to track natural and man-made sources and sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) through time by region and source.

NOAA’s CarbonTracker enables policy makers, industry, scientists, and the public to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and make more informed decisions about limiting greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at local and regional levels.

Atmospheric CO2 measurements and observed winds from all over the globe are fed into CarbonTracker, which calculates CO2 emissions (“sources”) and removals (“sinks”) for 135 ecosystems and 11 ocean basins worldwide. CarbonTracker then transforms the results into a color-coded map of sources and sinks. One of the system's most powerful assets is its ability to detect natural variations in carbon uptake and release by oceans and vegetation, which could either aid or counteract societies' efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions on a seasonal basis.

Using today's data, CarbonTracker can distinguish surface emissions on a broad scale and plans are underway to further refine it on much smaller scales – even accounting for power plants, cars, growing forests, regional drought, and more at the city level. For example, it is hoped that resolution will be fine enough to determine net emissions from the Sacramento area independently from those from the San Francisco Bay area.

CarbonTracker data are available free online in several formats, but among the most popular are short movies that animate the invisible gas.

This month’s expert: Pieter Tans, Andy Jacobson, and Wouter Peters, NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab.

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