Carbon dioxide is an odorless, invisible gas. If we could see that carbon as a solid material on the ground, that might change our perspective on the amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere. Play NOVA’s Polar Lab to see what effects all that CO2 is having on our planet’s poles.
A Bird's-Eye View of Carbon Emissions
Published: February 25, 2020
Caitlin Saks: Welcome aboard helicopter flight P-L-X, headed to the west coast of Greenland.
If you could actually look at the molecules in the air down below, you’d see carbon dioxide concentrations averaging about 412 parts per million. That is, out of every million molecules of air, 412 of them are CO2. And that’s more than the planet’s seen in the last 3 million years.
So where’s all that extra carbon dioxide coming from? Mainly, all the carbon-based fuels we humans burn. For example, think about all the roads and cars you see every day.
In every gallon of gasoline, there’s about 5 pounds of carbon. Now, what does that look like? Well, imagine that carbon came out of a car’s tailpipe, not as invisible carbon dioxide gas, but as solid chunks of carbon.
If you add up all the world’s cars, they produce 3 million tons of carbon every day.
And that’s just cars. When we add in power plants, factories, agriculture, and aviation—including helicopters like this one—the total carbon released from human activities in a year is 12 and a half billion tons… Enough to leave a pile of carbon 4 miles across and over a mile high!
This is why scientists say we’ve ushered in a new geologic age called the ‘Anthropocene’… with humans now altering Earth’s climate. But what exactly will all the CO2 actually do to our planet?
Here in Greenland, you can see one of the impacts firsthand.
Now make sure you buckle your seatbelt! Because we’re about to land alongside the Jakobshavn Glacier.
Hosted by: Caitlin Saks
Production by: Ari Daniel & Lorena Lyon
Camera: Emily Zendt
NOVA Labs Editorial Director: David Condon
Additional Visuals: Videoblocks
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020