Where Does All the Carbon Dioxide End Up?

Migrated Image

We imagine most of you, upon reading the post's title, will have already (and accurately) guessed the short answer: the atmosphere and the oceans (for the most part). But, to delve further into the matter, where exactly in the atmosphere or the oceans does it all go? How much of an impact do carbon sinks such as forests and the soil have? In what proportions? These are but a few of the questions that have long befuddled leading climate scientists trying to make heads or tails of carbon emissions' final resting place. They themselves will readily admit that they aren't even sure where a significant percentage of global emissions - roughly a quarter - ends up every year.

"A quarter of all the CO2 that is emitted is going somewhere, and we don't know where. That raises a lot of red flags," said David Crisp of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. According to a new study of 28,000 measurements collected between 2000 and 2006 and analyzed by NOAA's CarbonTracker system, only about a third of the carbon dioxide is absorbed by carbon sinks such as the soil and forests; a large portion of it ends up in the atmosphere - but that still leaves a significant amount unaccounted for.Interestingly, the CarbonTracker found carbon emissions to be highest in the Midwest; that single region released more carbon dioxide than any other country - except Russia, China, India and, of course, the U.S. Carbon dioxide was found to be most readily absorbed east of the Rocky Mountains and in northern Canada.

As helpful as these measurements are, however, scientists are worried that they may be overestimating or - more likely - underestimating the climate situation. The wave of droughts and wildfires that roiled many regions of the country have likely left several hundred million more tons of carbon in the atmosphere and devastated many of our natural carbon sinks - as much as half, according to John Miller, a NOAA geochemist.

Katie Fehrenbacher from Earth2Tech linked to another helpful portrayal of the U.S. carbon sources, the National Energy Technology Laboratory's (NETL) NatCarb, in a recent post. As scientists move forward in the new year, it will be interesting to see whether they'll be able to pinpoint that elusive chunk of carbon emissions (we sure hope so); not being able to quantify such a significant portion raises clear "red flags," as Crisp explained, because it casts into doubt most of the temperature predictions being made based on our current data.

See also: ::Carbon Tracker: What's the CO2 in Your Neighborhood?, ::Using GPS to Track Global Warming