The Pandemic Gave Scientists a New Way to Spy on Emissions


Think about it sky like a big bowl of blue soup. Its ingredients include oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, which scientists can accurately measure. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been adding a lot of extra CO2 burning fossil fuels, warming the planet 1.2 degrees Celsius so far and complicating those calculations.

Although it is easy enough to know how much total CO2 It’s in this atmospheric soup, it’s hard to analyze how much humanity is adding at any given time. This is because the Earth’s natural processes also create gas, and because there are a multitude of sources for the emissions of civilization itself, some of which increase or decrease every hour. It would be like throwing drops of salt into the real soup and then trying to accurately count how many grains went into it. after they hit the liquid.

What atmospheric scientists can do, however, is make an inventory, a “bottom-up” effort to thoroughly count CO2 from the sky.2 as it occurs on Earth. For example, they can add up how much gasoline is being burned and how many fossil fuel power plants are running at any given time, to calculate how much carbon is being released into the atmosphere. While fairly accurate, this entire inventory is time consuming, in large part because some data is slow to enter. And punctuality is important when taking action against climate change, because we need to identify the sources of CO2 and remove them as soon as possible, for example by replacing coal with renewables, petrol cars with electric vehicles, and gas ovens with heat pumps.

You may be wondering why researchers can’t take a more “top-down” approach by training satellites in parts of the world and measuring CO2 coming out of them. It has been tested in parts of the world, such as when a NASA satellite read the Los Angeles Basin. But there are some problems: the air mixes and it is difficult to identify exactly where the emissions come from. Another is that it can be difficult to choose CO emissions from humanity2 created by the Earth’s natural carbon cycle. When plants do photosynthesis, they suck in carbon and lock it into their tissues and in turn expel oxygen. When they die and rot, this carbon is re-emitted.

But now, curiously, the Covid-19 pandemic has given scientists a better top-down tool for estimating tiny changes in fossil fuel emissions. A team of researchers used the UK Coastal Weybourne Atmospheric Observatory to test the air for carbon dioxide and oxygen separately and then summarized the measurements. They then used a trick called atmospheric potential oxygen, or APO, which calculates the imbalance between oxygen and CO.2 of fossil fuel emissions.

The key to separating natural and man-made emissions is the relationship between CO2 and oxygen. Plants both process in a one-to-one ratio: they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as the oxygen they expel, so the totals cancel each other out. The burning of fossil fuels, on the other hand, consumes more oxygen than CO produces2.



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