El Nino caused record Carbon dioxide spike in 2015-16

Kevin Frayer

Kevin Frayer

The deputy project scientist of OCO-2 Annmarie Eldering believes that half of the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, and half of it stays in oceans or is used by plants during photosynthesis.

The super-sized El Nino a couple of years ago led to an increase of 3 billion tons of carbon in the air.

The findings suggest that, at least in some cases, higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide result from the interplay of natural conditions and human activity.

The effect was so large that it was the main factor in the biggest one-year jump in heat-trapping gas levels in the modern record, NASA scientists said. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission was created to circumvent those limitations by providing a platform with which atmospheric CO2 can be measured spectrally from space over large geographic areas, thereby offering an unprecedented capability to study, in great detail, the processes that affect the concentration of the gas over a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

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El Nino is a cyclical warming pattern of ocean circulation in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide. Researchers found that in drought-struck parts of South America plants grew less, there were more fires in Asia, and there was an increased rate of leaf decay in Africa.

"If future climate is more like this recent El NiƱo, the trouble is the Earth may actually lose some of the carbon removal services we get from these tropical forests, and then [carbon dioxide] will increase even faster in the atmosphere", Scott Denning, an OCO-2 science team member, said during a NASA briefing, the BBC reports. And that increase was nearly three parts per million of carbon dioxide per year or 6.3 gigatonnes of carbon. This made the scientists conclude that El Nino might have driven the carbon emissions owing to less rainfall in South America and hot temperatures in Africa.

Data from the satellite will help scientists understand the global carbon cycle-and how that cycle may change in response to global warming. "In this sense, the 2015-16 El Nino is a glimpse of what is to come", Overpeck said in an email.

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