The unending debate about how best to best deal with rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere has been fueled by sometimes conflicting climate models that predict sometimes conflicting results. One model might say planting trees in northern latitudes will help sequester carbon, while another indicates it might actually increase global warming. Such debates, pitting one computer model against another, while interesting academically, are not helping us solve the looming carbon crisis ahead.

One of the primary reasons for these conflicts is limited data. The best data currently available comes from an instrument on board NASA's Aqua satellite which only captures CO2 measurement at 3-5 km above the surface of the earth. That makes pinpointing high concentrations of CO2 emittance and effective "carbon sinks" next to impossible.

As chief scientist David Crisp explains, "If you take out the fossil fuels — for which we understand the CO2 source to within 10 percent — and look at the rest of the carbon dioxide that's introduced into the atmosphere by our activities, it's uncertain by 100 percent.

But NASA's new OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) will change all that. Set to launch in a few weeks from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the satellite is dedicated to collecting highly detailed measurements at the surface of the earth. By carefully measuring the refraction of sunlight as it bounces off the surface of the planet, OCO can determine exactly how much carbon is released and captured and, more importantly, where.

This will help scientists better understand phenomenon such as the north mid-latitude carbon sink. Somewhere — it could be in Siberia or it could be in Canada — there is a very large carbon sink, but no one knows exactly where it is or how it works. In order for scientists to make the case for the preservation (and possibly the replication) of these areas, it is crucial to have exact knowledge about where and how the carbon is stored.

One hopes NASA's OCO will help the upcoming United Nations COP 15 (Conference of Parties) arrive at a global "shared agreement" about how to best handle global carbon emissions. Past attempts have failed, but perhaps a good dosage of hardcore science will help move things along.

To listen to Dr. Crisp explain how the satellite works you can visit the BBC website.

2/24/09 UPDATE: The OCO satellite failed to reach orbit and crashed somewhere in Antarctica. What a tragedy! Having accurate carbon emissions data is critical to creating a global climate treaty. Read the sad story here.

NASA to launch carbon-hunting satellite this month
New Orbiting Carbon Observatory will pinpoint CO2 hot spots.