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NASA video brings carbon dioxide pollution to life in vivid, swirling colors

Mention carbon dioxide and most people imagine an invisible force that is contributing to everything from sea level rise to melting glaciers.

Now, a team from NASA has unveiled an ultra-high resolution computer model that shows plumes and swirls of the greenhouse gas - in vivid reds, oranges and yellows - as its disperses around the globe, blown by the winds. It also illustrates the striking difference in carbon dioxide levels between the northern and southern hemispheres as well as seasonal swings in concentrations as the growth cycle of plants and trees changes with the seasons.

The oranges, reds and purples represent higher concentrations of carbon dioxide over the more industrialized northern hemisphere. The grays over countries like Russia and Indonesia represent carbon monoxide produced by burning forest fires.

Scientists are hoping the modeling - a visualization of a year's worth of carbon dioxide, similar to time lapse photography - will provide greater insight into how carbon dioxide behaves in the atmosphere and as well as what the climate will look like in the future.

"While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it's fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale," said Bill Putman, lead scientist on the project from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe."

Ground-based measurements of carbon dioxide for decades but this is the first time its movements have been modeled in such detail. The result are being presented Tuesday at a supercomputing conference in New Orleans.

The visualization in the model is part of a simulation called a "Nature Run," which ingests real data on atmospheric conditions and the emission of greenhouse gases and both natural and man-made particulates. The model is then is left to run on its own and simulate the natural behavior of the Earth's atmosphere. The Nature Run also simulates winds, clouds, water vapor and airborne particles such as dust, black carbon, sea salt and emissions from industry and volcanoes.

"We're very excited to share this revolutionary dataset with the modeling and data assimilation community," Putman said, "and we hope the comprehensiveness of this product and its ground-breaking resolution will provide a platform for research and discovery throughout the Earth science community."

This year, atmospheric carbon dioxide - the key driver of global warming - exceeded 400 parts per million across most of the northern hemisphere. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentrations were about 270 parts per million. Greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to continue rising in the decades ahead, driven mostly by the burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Global leaders are set to meet next month in Peru to begin crafting an agreement requiring governments to cuts their greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020, in order to keep temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times.

Scientists are hoping models like the one unveiled by NASA can also help them better understand carbon dioxide. Despite its significance, much remains unknown about the pathways it takes from emission source to the atmosphere or the role oceans and forests play as carbon sinks.

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com