NASA Calculates California's Carbon Budget, Monitors Ground Water

california ecosystem photo

Places like Sentinel Meadow in Yosemite National Park are more than just pretty places. They're contributing to balancing California's carbon budget. Photo via glennwilliamspdx via Flickr CC

NASA is giving California a helping hand by using its satellite imaging data and computer models to map out the state's natural ecosystems and determine just how much carbon they can absorb and ground water they can lose. The information is helping California set sustainable carbon and water budgets. Not only that, but the findings also push for more conservation efforts for the ecosystems. PhysOrg reports that in 2004, California's natural ecosystems absorbed as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as fossil fuel carbons emitted into the atmosphere - in other words, it was a net zero year for carbon emissions. Also, when there was more rain, forests and soils were able to trap additional carbon dioxide. This makes those ecosystems - and doing what we can to avoid drought and desertification - all the more important, and that means setting strict budgets on carbon emissions. The findings are based primarily on a computer model called the NASA-Carnegie Ames Stanford Approach (CASA).

It's rocky work right now, with more than just California struggling to find systems for setting and tracking budgets, and holding emitters accountable. But California, with its 13% share of the US gross domestic product, and its importance in the agricultural industry means it needs to get serious fast.

What Goes Into a Carbon Budget
NASA is helping the state with its emissions inventory by providing carbon models, looking at the state's vegetation, carbon sinks, and ecosystems to determine how much CO2 is absorbed, overlaying that with data on CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and GHG emissions from agriculture. The information is then used by California to determine how much CO2 can be emitted to maintain a net zero footprint.

Of course, net zero shouldn't be the goal. In order to get back down to 350 ppm - the level of CO2 that will stabilize warming - we need to have a negative carbon footprint, absorbing more than we are emitting.

California's Water Problem
Additionally, NASA has helped to show that California is using water at an unsustainable rate. This isn't exactly news, but the exact amount of water is. According to JPL, New space observations show that over the last seven years, the aquifers for California's Central Valley and the Sierra Nevadas have lost nearly enough water combined to fill Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir. This is in part due to the long drought the state has been enduring, as well as excessive human consumption.

"Grace data reveal groundwater in these basins is being pumped for irrigation at rates that are not sustainable if current trends continue," said [professor Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine]. "This is leading to declining water tables, water shortages, decreasing crop sizes and continued land subsidence. The findings have major implications for the U.S. economy, as California's Central Valley is home to one sixth of all U.S. irrigated land, and the state leads the nation in agricultural production and exports."

This data from NASA is an important step in figuring out how much CO2 California can emit and how much water it can consume, but it's up to policy makers to do something effective with that information.

More on Water and CO2 Monitoring
NASA's First CO2-Monitoring Satellite Crashes Into the Sea
NASA Animates Breakthroughs in Greenhouse Gas Research with New Tool (Video)
6 Solutions for California's Water Crisis and How We Can Help
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