265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139 csf@cambridgesciencefestival.org

Curiosity Challenge: What would happen if we could see Carbon Dioxide?


What would happen if we could see carbon dioxide? Alex, 11

Great question, Alex.

Each time you exhaled, you would notice a little puff of CO 2 leaving your lungs, a byproduct of your body using the energy from your breakfast to fuel your day. There would be seasonal changes, too. Forests, grasslands, and soils would be sucking in CO 2 during the summer, and then puffing out CO 2 during the winter. The oceans would also have their own seasonal pulses of CO 2 into or out of the water. This time of year, as trees begin to drop leaves and to use those sugars they’ve stored up for a long winter, you might see a halo of CO 2 being released. These are natural emissions, and eventually the carbon in that CO 2 will end up being taken up by plants and algae and will once again enter food webs, perhaps into the plants or animals that will one day end up on your dinner plate.

If we could see the colorless, ordorless gas carbon dioxide we would see it everywhere. Click To Tweet

The most important emissions we’d want to visualize is what comes from the burning of fossil fuels. CO 2 is released from tailpipes of vehicles, some power plants, and factory smoke stacks because they burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Cities, especially those with large populations, would have the largest fog of CO 2 hanging over them because there’s a lot of energy, and fossil fuels, required to keep those cities moving. And, CO 2 travels long distances, ending up in other places around the globe and in our oceans. Increasing reliance on fossil fuels instead of renewable energy is contributing to the alarming rate of climate change we face today.

The other important CO 2 emissions to look for would be those coming from deforestation and poorly-managed agriculture. Any human activity which damages the soil on a large scale could be visible as a pulse of CO 2 . In contrast, agricultural practices which build the soil would act to pull CO 2 back into the Earth and store it.

The good news is that we can visualize what it would look like if we could see CO 2 ; climate scientists at NASA recently helped us to do just this. If you click on the link below you’ll see a short video that simulates CO 2 in the air and how it changes seasonally and across the globe. You have clearly asked a question that NASA scientists have also asked themselves!

NASA climate scientists model what happens to CO2 in the atmosphere throughout a year on our planet, putting an otherwise colorless gas into vibrant color (image courtesy NASA Goddard media studios, https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/details.cgi?aid=11719)

Tara Duffy is a Lecturer in Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *