Research Article

Spaceborne detection of localized carbon dioxide sources

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Science  13 Oct 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6360, eaam5782
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam5782

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Structured Abstract


Although the carbon budget is often presented in terms of global-scale fluxes, many of the contributing processes occur through localized point sources, which have been challenging to measure from space. Persistent anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have altered the natural balance of Earth’s carbon sources and sinks. These emissions are driven by a multitude of individual mobile and stationary point sources that combust fossil fuels, with urban areas accounting for more than 70% of anthropogenic emissions to the atmosphere. Natural point-source emissions are dominated by wildfires and persistent volcanic degassing.


Comprehensive global measurements from space could help to more completely characterize anthropogenic and natural point-source emissions. In global carbon cycle models, anthropogenic point-source information comes from bottom-up emission inventories, whereas natural point-source information comes from a sparse in situ measurement network. Whereas clusters of urban CO2 point-source plumes merge together, isolated point sources (e.g., remote power plants, cement production plants, and persistently degassing volcanoes) create localized plumes. Because turbulent mixing and diffusion cause rapid downwind dilution, they are challenging to detect and analyze. Point-source detection from space is complicated by signal dilution: The observed values of Embedded Image (enhancement of the column-averaged dry-air CO2 mole fraction) correspond to in situ CO2 enhancements of 10-fold or higher. Space-based sensors that detect and quantify CO2 in plumes from individual point sources would enable validation of reported inventory fluxes for power plants. These sensors would also advance the detectability of volcanic eruption precursors and improve volcanic CO2 emission inventories.


Spaceborne measurements of atmospheric CO2 using kilometer-scale data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) reveal distinct structures caused by known anthropogenic and natural point sources, including megacities and volcanoes. Continuous along-track sampling across Los Angeles (USA) by OCO-2 at its ~2.25-km spatial resolution exposes intra-urban spatial variability in the atmospheric Embedded Image distribution that corresponds to the structure of the urban dome, which is detectable under favorable wind conditions. Los Angeles Embedded Image peaks over the urban core and decreases through suburban areas to rural background values more than ~100 km away. Enhancements of Embedded Image in the Los Angeles urban CO2 dome observed by OCO-2 vary seasonally from 4.4 to 6.1 parts per million (ppm). We also detected isolated CO2 plumes from the persistently degassing Yasur, Ambrym, and Aoba volcanoes (Vanuatu), corroborated by near-simultaneous sulfur dioxide plume detections by NASA’s Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite. An OCO-2 transect passing directly downwind of Yasur volcano yielded a narrow filament of enhanced Embedded Image (Embedded Image ≈ 3.4 ppm), consistent with plume modeling of a CO2 point source emitting 41.6 ± 19.7 kilotons per day (15.2 ± 7.2 megatons per year). These highest continuous volcanic CO2 emissions are collectively dwarfed by about 70 fossil fuel–burning power plants on Earth, which each emit more than 15 megatons per year of CO2.


OCO-2’s sampling strategy was designed to characterize CO2 sources and sinks on regional to continental and ocean-basin scales, but the unprecedented kilometer-scale resolution and high sensitivity enables detection of CO2 from natural and anthropogenic localized emission sources. OCO-2 captures seasonal, intra-urban, and isolated plume signals. Capitalizing on OCO-2’s sensitivity, a much higher temporal resolution would capture anthropogenic emission signal variations from diurnal, weekly, climatic, and economic effects, and, for volcanoes, precursory emission variability. Future sampling strategies will benefit from a continuous mapping approach with the sensitivity of OCO-2 to systematically and repeatedly capture these smaller, urban to individual plume scales of CO2 point sources.

OCO-2 detects urban CO2 signals with unprecedented detail over Los Angeles.

Individual “footprints” of OCO-2 Embedded Image data from early fall 2014 and summer 2015 over the city of Los Angeles strongly contrast with values over the distant, rural Antelope Valley. Embedded Image is the averaged dry-air molar CO2 concentration between the spacecraft and Earth’s surface.


Spaceborne measurements by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) at the kilometer scale reveal distinct structures of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by known anthropogenic and natural point sources. OCO-2 transects across the Los Angeles megacity (USA) show that anthropogenic CO2 enhancements peak over the urban core and decrease through suburban areas to rural background values more than ~100 kilometers away, varying seasonally from ~4.4 to 6.1 parts per million. A transect passing directly downwind of the persistent isolated natural CO2 plume from Yasur volcano (Vanuatu) shows a narrow filament of enhanced CO2 values (~3.4 parts per million), consistent with a CO2 point source emitting 41.6 kilotons per day. These examples highlight the potential of the OCO-2 sensor, with its unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, to detect localized natural and anthropogenic CO2 sources.

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