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El Nino caused record Carbon dioxide spike in 2015-16

13 October 2017

Readings from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 have confirmed that the El Niño weather pattern of 2015-2016 was behind the biggest annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in millennia.

In 2015 and 2016, the OCO-2 recorded an increase in CO2, which was 50% more than the average rise that has been noticed in the recent years.

"These three tropical regions released 2.5 gigatonnes (a billion tonnes) more carbon into the atmosphere than they did in 2011", said the lead author of the study Junjie Liu of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The three hotspots were all impacted by El Niño's heat, and then passed on the effects globally. Researchers found that in drought-struck parts of South America plants grew less, there were more fires in Asia, and there was an increased rate of leaf decay in Africa.

Tropical forests in eastern Africa had normal rainfall, but the temperatures were much greater than normal. For example, in tropical Indonesia a forest was burned down, which caused carbon to be released and ultimately left less plants to pull the carbon back down.

Indonesia was similar to South America in that it was the second-driest year in 30 years.

"We knew El Niños were one factor in these variations, but until now we didn't understand, at the scale of these regions, what the most important processes were", added Eldering.

The OCO-2 satellite can measure photosynthesis, as well as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and so will shed new light on the carbon cycle.

The findings suggest that, at least in some cases, higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide result from the interplay of natural conditions and human activity. Among other observations included relatively small carbon differences over the city of Los Angeles, and plumes of three volcanoes on Vanuatu. With its impressive collection of observational capabilities, OCO-2 will enable measurements of atmospheric Carbon dioxide to be made with sufficient precision, resolution, and coverage to faithfully characterize its sources and sinks globally over the seasonal cycle, a long-standing goal in atmospheric and climate science.