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Known Unknowns
NASA Launches Carbon-Monitoring Satellite

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.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    If we are talking about spending trillions on reducing atmospheric CO2, we may as well get some CO2 measurements.

  • Fat_Man

    Now they start taking measurements? I thought the science was settled and that we didn’t need anymore research..

  • Anthony Thomas

    You say We know that carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, like the glass in a greenhouse, and in so doing warms the earth.

    The problem is that we actually don`t actually know that – more specifically, any effect of CO2 is certainly NOT like the effect of glass in a greenhouse. No scientist says that. Moreover, there is no scientific proof that CO2 meaningfully warms the earth, and most certainly no evidence at all that it will cause catastrophic global warming. If such a proof existed, it would have been written down for all to see (as Dr Moore says). Could I suggest that you do some technical reading in the field, and bring the writer up to date.


  • Rick Johnson

    Why should we be taking steps to reduce ‘carbon’ emissions, when it is ‘carbon dioxide’ that the Greens are claiming is causing ‘global warming’.

    And why should we reduce carbon dioxide emissions when the evidence suggest that it has very little impact on global temperatures. There has been a significant increase in CO2 emissions over the past two decades, but virtually no increase in global temperatures. We all know that correlation is not causation, but now the Greens want us to accept causation where there is no correlation.

    Why do you continue to give any credence to the Greens discredited position on human induced climate change?

  • Corlyss

    Maybe now Doofus’ll give back the enemy-tracking satellite he forced the DoD to turn over to monitoring global warming.

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