NASA Unveiled Internet Software Tools for Carbon Management

Sep 04, 2004

NASA scientists have recently unveiled Internet software tools that will aid in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC), Moffett Field, Calif, developed the CQUEST science information visualization and modeling software. It enables government agencies, land managers and farm cooperatives to display, predict and analyze carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes in U.S. ecosystems. The application uses 'what if' scenarios, so land managers can decide where and when planting trees, mixing agriculture with trees or restoring native grasslands are effective for 'sponging up' CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by industrial activities.

The CQUEST science information visualization tool differs from most Web-based tools, because it uses data and images from a new generation of NASA Earth-observing satellites and sensors. Spacecraft, such as the Terra satellite, provide data and information down to a granular level of several square miles of land.

"Every part of the living environment needs and uses carbon," said Dr. Christopher Potter, the application's lead developer at ARC. "Carbon recycling is critical to the health of the global environment, because it helps scientists understand the linkages among the land, atmosphere and oceans, and either directly or indirectly affects the climate by regulating the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," he said.

Since 1990, U.S. CO2 emissions have increased annually by about 1.2 percent, potentially accelerating climate change and speeding up global warming. The increase comes largely from industrial emissions and automobiles burning fossil fuel, changes in land use and some natural processes like wildfires. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can contribute to mitigating this effect.

CQUEST developers envision regional users and government agencies will team up to develop a 'baseline pool' of how much carbon is stored in their land. Researchers can plug in 'what if' scenarios to compare different land use possibilities and predict 10 to 25 years ahead which management practices will be the most cost and environmentally effective. 'What if' scenarios could include predicting future droughts, heat waves or estimates based on different land management plans, such as planting crops versus planting forests.

Scientists hope Earth observation data will help users determine what conditions are optimum for carbon storage in U.S. soils and vegetation. CQUEST can display soil type, irrigation levels, rainfall rates and soil cultivation methods that could affect carbon storage. The first CQUEST users included the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. They are working with NASA to develop the science and information delivery system for the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service manages approximately 200 million acres of U.S. national forest and other lands. The application will help them make the most effective use of NASA Earth observing satellite data to manage land-based ecosystems.

Congress outlined legislation in 1992 for a voluntary program of CO2 reduction using a method called carbon credit trading. CQUEST's databases are designed to estimate how much carbon different types of ecosystems have or will absorb, which is essential to the success of carbon trading. "Satellite-generated maps available in CQUEST can aid in determining the characteristics of major forest disturbances and in linking satellite and ground data for estimating benchmark rates of carbon storage," said Richard Birdsey, program manager for Global Change Research for the Forest Service.

The CQUEST tool presents output from satellites through a NASA computer model of atmospheric CO2 uptake and storage in forests, grasslands, and croplands. This ecosystem simulation model is unique in its capacity to use satellite data to map the soil and vegetation components of the carbon cycle across the entire United States at consistently high spatial detail. Changes in density of vegetation are readily monitored from Earth observing satellites than are changes in soils, which must be simulated with computers over decades of potential climate change and human alteration. CQUEST users are provided integrated information on what is happening, both above the ground in plants and below the ground in roots and microbes, to capture the effects on yearly carbon pools.

CQUEST is easy to use. Users simply 'point and click' to display detailed maps that contain Earth science information on carbon and related satellite measurements. Land managers can customize map views, zoom in to local areas, print images and obtain data in easy-to-read tables. The NASA CQUEST application is available on the Internet at: geo.arc.nasa.gov/website/cquestwebsite/

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