Happened to be observing at Vandenberg Air Force base the launch of a satellite that scientists hoped would answer a huge question about global warming called the OCO, or Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Ten minutes after lift-off, those of us standing in a chilly field in the early morning heard the voices over the loudspeakers at mission control warn that they were "initiating a launch contingency poll."
When translated from engineer-speak, this turned out to mean that the mission's protective nosecone did not come off as planned. Instead of going into orbit, the satellite crashed into the Indian Ocean. Here's my story about it for the Santa Barbara Independent.
They added a nice photo of the launch from the Air Force, courtesy of Andrew Lee.
It's a real shame this quarter-billion mission didn't reach orbit, because the satellite had a crucial question to answer. Why is it that sometimes the earth's natural carbon sinks — principally, the oceans and the forests — effectively sop up most of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, both naturally and from the burning of fossil fuels, but some years not?
In the words of Wally Broecker and Robert Kunzig, and their excellent book from last year Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat — and How to Counter It:
But if you dig a little deeper into this story, you discover two shocking facts. One, as indicated in the quote above, scientists cannot trace how and where this "missing carbon" is being reabsorbed. Being good physicists, they can make calculations and surmises, but they cannot track that missing carbon.
Second, a little known fact, the amount of carbon being reabsorbed by the oceans and the forests of this planet varies greatly from year to year and we don't know why. It's a curious irony, actually. Our emissions of CO2 from the burning of carbon are steadily increasing, and we can chart that increase quite accurately. But our understanding of the natural world's capacity to soak up that excess carbon dioxide is primitive by comparison.
Here's a graphic that explains this better than any sentence or two possibly could, courtesy of David Crisp, a team leader on the OCO mission. Please note the tremendous variability in the reabsorbtion of CO2 from the atmosphere: