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Hypnotic NASA video makes Earth's carbon dioxide gorgeous

A new video simulation from NASA is so beautiful to watch, it's easy to forget it's tracking one of the biggest disruptors of our climate.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Red tide. The production and distribution of carbon dioxide has never looked so beautiful -- or so disturbing. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

Remember those sand art panels that flip over to send a swirl of different colored particles through a liquid, creating beautiful swooping patterns? A new supercomputer-generated simulation from NASA looks kind of like that, only instead of harmless grains of sand, the video depicts the journey of environmentally damaging carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide throughout the large-scale weather patterns that blanket our planet.

There are two striking things about the video. First is that the majority of the world's carbon dioxide -- which is "the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities," according to the EPA -- is produced largely in the industrialized northern hemisphere.

The second is that during our springs and summers, airborne carbon dioxide dramatically decreases because of the action of forests and other green growing things. When our trees stop photosynthesizing in the winter, the gas -- which is seen in this visualization as plumes of color indicating its concentration -- spikes again.

The southern hemisphere contributes its own gas to our atmosphere. "In the southern hemisphere, we see the release of another pollutant -- carbon monoxide," the video says. "This is a gas that's both harmful to the environment and to humans. During the summer months, plumes of carbon monoxide stream from fires in Africa, Australia and South America, contributing to high concentrations in the atmosphere." The video shows carbon monoxide as grayscale.

NASA's data was compiled as part of a program called "Nature Run," which can also simulate "winds, clouds, water vapor and airborne particles such as dust, black carbon, sea salt and emissions from industry and volcanoes," says a NASA report about the simulation. It was executed on the NASA Center for Climate Simulation's Discover supercomputer cluster at Goddard Space Flight Center. It used atmospheric data from May 2005 to June 2007, took 75 days to complete and produced nearly 4 petabytes of data.

Subsequently, a computer model called GEOS-5 at NASA Goddard's Global Modeling and Assimilation Office created the stunning video you see above, which, NASA says, "is among the highest-resolution [models] ever created," clocking in at a resolution "approximately 64 times greater than that of typical global climate models." The visualization shows one year of data from 2006.

NASA says the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has spiked significantly. "In the spring of 2014, for the first time in modern history, atmospheric carbon dioxide -- the key driver of global warming -- exceeded 400 parts per million across most of the northern hemisphere," the report says. "Prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentrations were about 270 parts per million. Concentrations of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere continue to increase, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels."

In July, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite to help it further understand the process behind the ebb and flow of carbon dioxide on Earth. "Despite carbon dioxide's significance, much remains unknown about the pathways it takes from emission source to the atmosphere or carbon reservoirs such as oceans and forests," NASA says. "Combined with satellite observations such as those from NASA's recently launched OCO-2, computer models will help scientists better understand the processes that drive carbon dioxide concentrations."