Watch NASA's Trippy, Scary Simulation of Carbon Dioxide Build Up

The simulation shows how carbon emissions move around the globe.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers

Climate change is real, and human activity is behind it. Scientists know that the main culprit is the burning of fossil fuels, which releases loads of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas lingers in the air and heats up the planet, but thanks to a startling new simulation created by NASA, we have a better idea of where, exactly, all this carbon dioxide is building up.

Experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center combined data from various satellite measurements of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and combined them with a high-resolution weather model to make a trippy (and scary) 3D visualization of how all this excess carbon moves around the globe, where it’s most concentrated, and when and where it increases and decreases.

The simulation, which was released on Tuesday, models the movement of carbon in the atmosphere from September 2014 to September 2015. It’s important because, although scientists know that about 50 percent of carbon emissions stick around in the atmosphere, while land vegetation and the ocean absorb the other half in about equal measure, that’s too simplistic of an understanding.

“However, those seemingly simple numbers leave scientists with critical and complex questions,” a NASA release explains. “Which ecosystems, especially on land, are absorbing what amounts of carbon dioxide? Perhaps most significantly, as emissions keep rising, will the land and the ocean continue this rate of absorption, or reach a point of saturation?”

The new simulation doesn’t provide all the answers, but it does an admirable job showing how the rates rise and fall, and illustrates how mountain ranges and areas like the United States’ corn belt affect absorption, since there’s a ton of photosynthesi going on in the region.

NASA scientists are still working on being able to fully understand the process behind “carbon flux” — the exchange of carbon between the air, land, and sea.

“We can’t measure the flux directly at high resolution across the entire globe,” explained Lesley Ott, a carbon cycle scientist at NASA Goddard, adding that the agency is working hard on building the tools. “There’s still a long way to go, but this is a really important and necessary step in that chain of discoveries about carbon dioxide.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is the type of climate research that Donald Trump is suggesting that he’ll shut down when he takes office. Just something to ponder while you watch a vivid simulation of carbon dioxide clogging up our planet’s atmosphere.

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