Systems don’t come much more complicated than our planet’s climate, and to understand this enigma better—and our role in it—NASA launched a satellite this week whose sole purpose will be measuring carbon dioxide concentrations in earth’s atmosphere. The NYT reports:
The observatory will make a million measurements a day, although interference by clouds means that perhaps only 10 percent will turn out to be useful. That will still provide a bounty of data for scientists looking to gain a clearer picture of what happens to the carbon dioxide, only half of which stays up in the air. A quarter of the emissions is absorbed by the oceans; another quarter is believed to be taken up by plants growing on land, but scientists do not have detailed data to see exactly where. The patterns also change with the seasons and can be affected by floods and droughts.“There’s something really neat going on,” said David Crisp, the head of the mission’s science team. “We just need to find it.”
We know that carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, like the glass in a greenhouse, and in so doing warms the earth. We also know that humans are emitting carbon dioxide at historic rates, largely as the result of industrialization. But after that, once we get down to the details, our understanding starts to break down. And no wonder: earth’s climate is complex system with innumerable feedback loops and variables.Predicting what carbon emission concentrations will mean—specifically—for global temperatures has made many environmental activists look foolish. There has been an unpredicted plateau in surface-temperature warming over the past decade or so, which scientists now believe might have something to do with oceans absorbing more heat.We hope this NASA satellite helps us understand our climate better, but this launch is also an opportunity to reflect on how limited our understanding of our climate actually is. We can and should take steps towards limiting carbon emissions, but crafting policies based on specific predictions of future increases in temperature is a fool’s game.