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OCO-2 will provide a new tool for understanding both the sources of carbon dioxide emissions and the natural processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and how they are changing over time. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, the burning of fossil fuels, as well as other human activities, have led to a buildup in this greenhouse gas, which is now at its highest level in at least 800,000 years. Human activities have increased the level of carbon dioxide by more than 25 percent in the past half century.
Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap the sun's heat within Earth's atmosphere, warming it and keeping it at habitable temperatures. However, scientists have concluded that increases in carbon dioxide resulting from human activities have thrown Earth's natural carbon cycle off balance, increasing global temperatures and changing the planet's climate.
While scientists understand carbon dioxide emissions resulting from burning fossil fuels and can estimate their quantity quite accurately, their understanding of carbon dioxide from other human- produced and natural sources is relatively less quantified. Atmospheric measurements collected at ground stations indicate less than half of the carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere stays there. The rest is believed to be absorbed by the ocean and plants on land.
But the locations and identity of the natural "sinks" absorbing this carbon dioxide currently are not well understood. OCO-2 will help solve this critical scientific puzzle. Quantifying how the natural processes are helping remove carbon from the atmosphere will help scientists construct better models to predict how much carbon dioxide these sinks will be able to absorb in the future.
The mission's technologies will enable space-based measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide with the sensitivity, resolution and coverage needed to characterize the sources of carbon dioxide emissions and the natural sinks that moderate their buildup, at regional scales, everywhere on Earth.
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