Nasa Launches Carbon Satellite

  • Artist's concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. The satellite crashed into the ocean on Tuesday, February 24th, 2009. (Photo courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Library)

(NOTE: THE SATELLITE FEATURED IN THIS STORY CRASHED INTO THE OCEAN ON TUESDAY, FEB. 24TH)

Drive your car. Mow your lawn. Heat your house. It all puts climate changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But not all of the carbon dioxide stays up there. Vincent Duffy reports scientists at NASA hope a new satellite will help them solve the mystery of where some of that CO2 goes:

Transcript

(NOTE: THE CARBON SATELLITE CRASHED INTO THE OCEAN ON TUESDAY, FEB. 24TH)

Drive your car. Mow your lawn. Heat your house. It all puts climate changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But not all of the carbon dioxide stays up there. Vincent Duffy reports scientists at NASA hope a new satellite will help them solve the mystery of where some of that CO2 goes:

People worried about climate change pay a lot of attention to carbon dioxide.
It’s one of the chief causes of climate change. And people put a lot of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere, almost 8 billion tons a year.

That has former Vice President Al Gore worried. Here he is testifying before
Congress last month –

“Our home, earth, is in danger. What is at risk of being destroyed is not the
planet itself of course, but the conditions that have made it hospitable for
human beings.”

If we are in danger, then scientists need a good handle on what happens to
all that carbon dioxide.

About half of the CO2 created by humans is absorbed back into the earth by
what scientists call ‘carbon sinks.’ Scientists know half of the absorbed
carbon dioxide goes into the oceans, and the other half is sucked up by
plants. But scientists don’t know which plants are absorbing the most carbon
dioxide, and how the CO2 travels there.

The scientists at NASA hope a new satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon
Observatory, will help them answer those questions.

David Crisp heads up the project. He says measuring carbon dioxide levels
from the ground doesn’t provide enough information to know where the
CO2 actually ends up.

“But from space we can actually make much more detailed measurements,
make a snapshot of the carbon dioxide distribution in the atmosphere. That
will give us much more information about where the carbon dioxide is and
from that we can infer where the sources are and where the sinks are.”

Right now it’s a bit of a blur. Anna Michalak is a professor at the University
of Michigan and part of the NASA team. She says to track what’s going on
with all the CO2 on the earth is like trying to figure out how cream went into
a cup of coffee.

“If I give you a cup of coffee, and I pour cream into the cup of coffee, and I
ask you what’s going to happen when I start stirring, it’s pretty easy to
predict that you’ll have a creamy cup of coffee. But what we do instead is
someone hands us a creamy cup of coffee and asks us, ‘Did we pour the
cream in on the left side or the right side, and did we pour the cream in five
minutes ago or ten minutes ago?’ And you can imagine that’s a much more
difficult question.”

Michalak says the satellite observatory will help answer that difficult
question, and help us understand how plants may react to carbon dioxide in
the future, as the earth’s climate changes. She says right now plants seem to
be absorbing more CO2 than ever before.

“And we have no guarantee that this is going to continue in the future. And
so you can imagine that something that has such a high value, there is an
interest in us knowing how predictable and how reliable this service is to us.
Because the cost for us to replicate anything resembling that is just
astronomical.”

The satellite will also answer other questions about climate change. Things
like which countries emit the most CO2.

Jiaguo Qi studies climate change at Michigan State University. He says the
satellite may show that people concerned about the cost of reducing green
house gasses may unfairly blame the United States and other developed
nations.

“Media report that North America is primarily responsible for global
warming. But we don’t know how much carbon dioxide other countries are
emitting, because we donít have good measure. This one will tell us who is
emitting and how much they are emitting instead of just blaming us.”

And the data from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory might show that it’s not
just the forests and jungles that help keep climate change at bay. It might
also be forests and farmland in the United States, and your lawn, and even
golf courses.

For The Environment Report I’m Vincent Duffy.

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Fastest Blast in Nature

A botanist has documented what he’s
calling the “fastest flight in nature.” Tana
Weingartner explains:

Transcript

A botanist has documented what he’s
calling the “fastest flight in nature.” Tana
Weingartner explains:

Imagine this: a You-Tube video showing tulip-shaped fungi recoiling and
launching spores like wet cannonballs.

(sound of music)

Nicholas Money is a botanist at Miami University. He and a team of
researchers have used high speed cameras to capture, for the first time, fungi
launching spores.

“Fleas accelerate at 200 g, but we’re clocking these fungi moving at close to 200,000
g in terms of their acceleration. These are astonishingly fast movements.”

Fungi cause billions of dollars in crop damage each year.

Money says knowing how these spores move around can help prevent these
losses. He also says it’ll help allergen and pharmaceutical researchers too.

For The Environment Report, I’m Tana Weingartner.

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