Discussing Keeling Curve

National Weather Center Director Berrien Moore talks Thursday about climate studies and the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory during the Norman Economic Development Coalition’s Economic Summit at Embassy Suites in Norman.

Joy Hampton / The Transcript 

NORMAN, Okla. — The biosphere breathes, which is basically saying, planet Earth breathes. 

That breath of life was discovered by scientist David Keeling, who recorded the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

National Weather Center Director Berrien Moore remembers Keeling and looking at his measurements and predicting that “this planet is going to get really hot.”

Moore is a world-renowned Earth scientist who serves as vice president of Weather and Climate Programs and dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.

Moore called the Keeling Curve “the most important data set of the 21st century” Thursday speaking to Sooner Centurions, business and economic professionals, and city leaders at the Norman Economic Development Coalition’s annual Economic Summit.

In Norman, weather is big business, not just because of the National Weather Center, the National Weather Service, the National Severe Storm Laboratory and OU’s College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, but because it’s a major factor in our tornado-, hail- and wind-prone state.

Scott Martin, Norman Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, noted that Norman is probably the only chamber in the nation that has a weather committee.

Moore explained Keeling’s research and the implications. Keeling discovered that a seasonal cycle of carbon dioxide increases and decreases, or the Earth’s “breath.”

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air fluctuates by season. In the Northern Hemisphere winter, CO2 rises due to low photosynthesis; in spring, it declines again. Despite these seasonal differences, Keeling measured and tracked a rising pattern in CO2 in the atmosphere over years.

That documentation is the Keeling Curve, and the implications have resulted in scientific concerns about climate change.

Moore is the architect and principal investigator of the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb), a first-of-its-kind mission selected by NASA to measure greenhouse gases and vegetation health from space.

Moore said he is climbing on the shoulders of giants like Keeling, whose records also point to humanity’s role in that CO2 increase.

“We burn fossil fuels,” Moore said. “There’s also a deforestation.”

Historically, scientists have proven that the amount of CO2 went up in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution, Moore said.

“Fossil fuels replaced human labor, which is good, but it does impact,” he said.

The ocean and vegetation transform some of the CO2, but the ocean can only handle so much, and deforestation along with loss of other vegetation is contributing to the rise, along with the CO2 put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels to meet energy needs.

Keeling’s son, Ralph Keeling, followed in his father’s scientific footsteps and took the data to the next step.

“What Ralph Keeling did was start measuring oxygen very carefully,” Moore said. “As you burn fossil fuels, oxygen goes down. As you burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide goes up.”

Carbon dioxide isn’t categorically bad, however. It’s vital for photosynthesis and keeps the sun’s heat from leaving the atmosphere, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Mainstream scientists believe too much CO2 is creating warmer global temperatures, melting ice cores and causing ocean levels to rise along with other climate changes.

“Monitoring carbon is something that we’re going to be doing, and we do it now,” Moore said.

NASA has an Orbiting Carbon Observatory that measures carbon, but what Moore’s team is proposing is a step further. 

GeoCarb will provide measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO) from geostationary orbit.

“This is a great mission. It’s in what we call low earth orbit and it goes from pole to pole and measures the carbon in the atmosphere,” Moore said.

“You want the concentration of CO2. If you go over the Rocky Mountains, the CO2 goes down because the amount of air goes down.”

The GeoCarb mission will deliver daily maps of column concentrations of CO2, CH4 and CO over the observed landmasses in the Americas at a spatial resolution of roughly 5 by 8 kilometers, which will establish the scientific basis for CO2 and CH4 flux determination at the unprecedented time and space scale.

“We are confident that this determination will produce a fundamental change in our scientific understanding of the terrestrial source/sink dynamics of the carbon cycle,” he said.

The instrument will exploit the four spectral regions: The Oxygen A-band for pressure and aerosols, the weak and strong bands of CO2 near 1.61 and 2.06 microns, and a region near 2.32 microns for CO and CH4.

The O2 A-band also provides for retrieval of Solar Induced Fluoresce (SIF). Moore and his team will use reflected sunlight to measure the total amount of oxygen, compared to CO2, to get the concentrations. They also will measure photosynthesis. 

The instrument will be hosted on a commercial SES Communication Satellite, which opens the door for other Earth-observing instruments to use communication satellites as a relatively low-cost ride to space.

Moore said partnerships have made the project, which launches in June 2022, possible.


Hampton is senior staff writer for the The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.

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