CO2 monitoring from space just got a lot more accurate

15 Jun 2015

Illustration of OCO-2 satellite via NASA/JPL-Caltech

Analysing the Earth’s atmosphere for CO2 from space using satellites will now be a lot more accurate after a team of astronomers developed a new method using the wonders of quantum mechanics.

Currently, most spaceborne CO2 monitoring of climate change from Earth is done with satellites such as NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2), which analyses both heat and light in the atmosphere to determine how much CO2 is there.

With this method and others, climatologists have only been able to say that this gathered data has been accurate to within 5pc of the actual figure.

Now, however, a study published online by an international team from the US, Russia and Poland claims that with its new model of analysis, this can be increased in accuracy to a discrepancy of just 0.3pc, which is within the acceptable allowance set out by science.

According to, the new model will allow OCO-2 and other climate-monitoring satellites to analyse how light of different colours is absorbed by CO2 using quantum mechanical equations by predicting the chances of a CO2 molecule absorbing different colours of light with the help of supercomputers, which are then verified with a technique called cavity-ring down spectroscopy.

Using this method, climate scientists will now be much better able to see how the levels of CO2 evolve in our atmosphere.

Supervising author, Professor Jonathan Tennyson of the physics and astronomy department of UCL , said of its importance: “Billions of dollars are currently being spent on satellites that monitor what seems to be the inexorable growth of CO2 in our atmospheres. To interpret their results, however, it is necessary to have a very precise answer to the question ‘How much radiation does one molecule of CO2 absorb?’ Up until now laboratory measurements have struggled to answer this question accurately enough to allow climate scientists to interpret their results with the detail their observations require.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic