NASA Pinpoints Cause of Earth’s Recent Record Carbon Dioxide Spike

A new NASA
study provides space-based evidence that
Earth’s tropical regions were the
cause of the largest annual
increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide
concentration seen in
at least 2,000 years.

suspected the 2015-16 El Nino — one of the
largest on record — was
responsible, but exactly how has been
a subject of ongoing research. Analyzing
the first 28 months
of data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)
satellite, researchers conclude impacts of El Nino-related heat
and drought
occurring in tropical regions of South America,
Africa and Indonesia were
responsible for the record spike in
global carbon dioxide. The findings are
published in the
journal Science Friday as part of a collection of five
papers based on OCO-2 data.

“These three
tropical regions released 2.5 gigatons more
carbon into the atmosphere than
they did in 2011,” said Junjie
Liu of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
California, who is lead author of the study. “Our analysis
shows this
extra carbon dioxide explains the difference in
atmospheric carbon dioxide
growth rates between 2011 and the
peak years of 2015-16. OCO-2 data allowed us
to quantify how
the net exchange of carbon between land and atmosphere in
individual regions is affected during El Nino years.” A gigaton
is a billion

In 2015 and
2016, OCO-2 recorded atmospheric carbon
dioxide increases that were 50 percent
larger than the average
increase seen in recent years preceding these
These measurements are consistent with those made by the
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That
increase was about 3 parts
per million of carbon dioxide per
year — or 6.3 gigatons of carbon. In recent
years, the
average annual increase has been closer to 2 parts per million
carbon dioxide per year — or 4 gigatons of carbon. These
record increases
occurred even though emissions from human
activities in 2015-16 are estimated
to have remained roughly
the same as they were prior to the El Nino, which is a
cyclical warming pattern of ocean circulation in the central
and eastern
tropical Pacific Ocean that can affect weather

Using OCO-2
data, Liu’s team analyzed how Earth’s land
areas contributed to the record
atmospheric carbon dioxide
concentration increases. They found the total amount
of carbon
released to the atmosphere from all land areas increased by 3
gigatons in 2015, due to the El Nino. About 80 percent of that
amount — or 2.5
gigatons of carbon — came from natural
processes occurring in tropical forests
in South America,
Africa and Indonesia, with each region contributing roughly
the same amount.

The team
compared the 2015 findings to those from a
reference year — 2011 — using
carbon dioxide data from the
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Greenhouse
Observing Satellite (GOSAT). In 2011, weather in the three
regions was normal and the amount of carbon absorbed
and released by them was
in balance.

how the carbon cycle in these regions
responded to El Nino will enable
scientists to improve carbon
cycle models, which should lead to improved
predictions of how
our planet may respond to similar conditions in the future,”
said OCO-2 Deputy Project Scientist Annmarie Eldering of JPL.
“The team’s
findings imply that if future climate brings more
or longer droughts, as the
last El Nino did, more carbon
dioxide may remain in the atmosphere, leading to
a tendency to
further warm Earth.”

While the three
tropical regions each released roughly
the same amount of carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere, the
team found that temperature and rainfall changes influenced
the El Nino were different in each region, and the natural
carbon cycle
responded differently. Liu combined OCO-2 data
with other satellite data to
understand details of the natural
processes causing each tropical region’s

In eastern and
southeastern tropical South America,
including the Amazon rainforest, severe
drought spurred by El
Nino made 2015 the driest year in the past 30 years.
Temperatures also were higher than normal. These drier and
hotter conditions
stressed vegetation and reduced
photosynthesis, meaning trees and plants
absorbed less carbon
from the atmosphere. The effect was to increase the net
of carbon released into the atmosphere.

In contrast, rainfall
in tropical Africa was at normal
levels, based on precipitation analysis that
satellite measurements and rain gauge data, but ecosystems
endured hotter-than-normal temperatures. Dead trees and
decomposed more, resulting in more carbon being released into
atmosphere. Meanwhile, tropical Asia had the second-driest
year in the past 30
years. Its increased carbon release,
primarily from Indonesia, was mainly due
to increased peat and
forest fires — also measured by satellite

“We knew El Ninos
were one factor in these variations,
but until now we didn’t understand, at the
scale of these
regions, what the most important processes were,” said
“OCO-2’s geographic coverage and data density are
allowing us to study each
region separately.”

Scott Denning,
professor of atmospheric science at
Colorado State University in Fort Collins
and an OCO-2 science
team member who was not part of this study, noted that
scientists have known for decades that El Nino influences the
productivity of tropical forests and, therefore, the forests’
net contributions
to atmospheric carbon dioxide, researchers
have had very few direct
observations of the effects.

“OCO-2 has
given us two revolutionary new ways to
understand the effects of drought and
heat on tropical
forests: directly measuring carbon dioxide over these regions
thousands of times a day; and sensing the rate of
photosynthesis by detecting
fluorescence from chlorophyll in
the trees themselves,” said Denning. “We can
use these data to
test our understanding of whether the response of tropical
forests is likely to make climate change worse or not.”

concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s
atmosphere is constantly changing.
It changes from season to
season as plants grow and die, with higher
concentrations in
the winter and lower amounts in the summer. Annually averaged
atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have generally
increased year over
year since the early 1800s — the start of
the widespread Industrial
Revolution. Before then, Earth’s
atmosphere naturally contained about
595 gigatons of carbon in
the form of carbon dioxide. Currently, that
number is 850

The annual
increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
and the magnitude of the seasonal
cycle are determined by a
delicate balance between Earth’s atmosphere, ocean
and land.
Each year, the ocean, plants and trees take up and release
dioxide. The amount of carbon released into the
atmosphere as a result of human
activities also changes each
year. On average, Earth’s land and ocean remove
about half the
carbon dioxide released from human emissions, with the other
half leading to increasing atmospheric concentrations. While
natural processes are responsible for the exchange of carbon
dioxide between
the atmosphere, ocean and land, each
year is
different. In some years, natural processes remove as little as
percent of human emissions, while in other years they scrub
as much as 80

OCO-2, launched
in 2014, gathers global measurements of
atmospheric carbon dioxide with the
resolution, precision and
coverage needed to understand how this important
gas — the principal human-produced driver of climate change

moves through the Earth system at regional scales, and how
it changes over
time. From its vantage point in space, OCO-2
is able to make roughly 100,000
measurements of atmospheric
carbon dioxide each day, around the world.

involved in the Liu study include JPL; the
National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colorado;
the University of Toronto; Colorado State
University; Caltech
in Pasadena, California; and Arizona State University in

For more
information on NASA’s Orbiting Carbon
Observatory-2 mission, visit:

News Media Contact

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dwayne Brown
NASA Headquarters, Washington