Science

Earth inhales and exhales carbon in fascinating animation

The earth breathes in this great animation by Markus Reichstein. (Image credit: Markus Reichstein / Creative Commons license)

The Earth appears to breathe in and out in a new animation that shows how carbon is absorbed and released as the seasons change.

The animated continents appear to deflate during the summers, indicating times and places where vegetation grows and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When it’s winter, the continents appear to swell, indicating that vegetation is dying and carbon is being released.

The changes are most striking in temperate latitudes such as continental Europe and North America, where seasonal differences are most pronounced. Equatorial regions do not change as much throughout the year, while some desert regions, with sparse vegetation, do not store or release much carbon.

The data in the animation comes from satellite observations and hundreds of carbon monitoring stations around the world, said Markus Reichstein, director of the Department of Biogeochemical Integration at the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, who posted the animation on Twitter on 1 from January. 6.

“Visualization is really a fun project,” Reichstein told LiveScience.

Related: 10 Devastating Signs Of Climate Change That Satellites Can See From Space

What the animation ultimately shows is an important part of the carbon cycle, or the flow of carbon throughout the planet’s system. Carbon can be released into the atmosphere by decaying organic material and by weathering of rocks containing carbon compounds; instead, it can be absorbed by the oceans and by plants, which use the carbon in the process of photosynthesis.

The importance of plants is clear in the animation, which shows places teeming with plants, such as the Brazilian Amazon and the forests of Eastern Europe, absorbing massive amounts of carbon in the southern and northern hemisphere summers, respectively. The ocean is not included in the animation, because while the ocean absorbs carbon, it doesn’t show strong seasonal patterns, Reichstein said.

Climate change is altering the growth pattern of vegetation around the world, Reichstein said, so the flow of carbon in and out of the biosphere is also changing. Those changes are too small to show up in a visualization like this, he said, but they will have different impacts in different places. For example, warmer and longer summers in the Northern Hemisphere can be good for plant growth, he said. But where warming comes with a lack of precipitation, as in much of the western United States, climate change can restrict plant growth.

“This carbon cycle and how it changes from month to month tells us a lot,” Reichstein said. But when it comes to social impact, he said, the main message is that forests are crucial to the health of the planet. Recent research finds that the Amazon, one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, has recently been releasing more carbon each year than it absorbs thanks to deforestation and wildfires, Live Science reported.

“It’s basically showing how important it is to protect carbon sinks,” he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

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