We Earthlings are lucky. While other planets in our solar system are either blistering hot or bitterly cold, the surface of Earth has relatively mild and stable temperatures.

We get to enjoy these conditions because of the Earth’s atmosphere, the thin layer of gases that envelop and protect our planet. But we humans have changed our atmosphere in dramatic ways over the past two centuries, resulting in rapid climate change.

The warming we’re currently experiencing is due to what’s called the greenhouse effect. During the day, as the sun shines, the Earth’s surface warms up. At night, as the Earth’s surface cools, heat is released back into the air—although greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and water vapor) trap some of that heat, keeping us, on average, at a comfortable 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Without greenhouse gases, Earth’s surface would be significantly colder, about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Human activities are radically altering the Earth’s carbon cycle—both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by curtailing the ability of natural sinks, such as forests, to remove CO2 from the air. ©John T. Andrews

The petrifying part of parts per million

However, if the greenhouse effect becomes too strong—which is what is happening now—Earth gets warmer and warmer. CO2 and other greenhouse gases then begin to act like a tight-weave blanket, absorbing infrared radiation but preventing it from escaping into outer space.

Of course, carbon dioxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth’s carbon cycle (the natural circulation of carbon between the atmosphere and animals, oceans, plants, and soil). But human activities are radically altering that cycle—both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by curtailing the ability of natural sinks, such as forests, to remove CO2 from the air. Human-related CO2 emissions are largely responsible for the increase that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution (taken as the year 1750). The combustion of carbon-based fuels (coal, natural gas, oil, and wood) for energy and transportation and extensive clearing of native forests has contributed to a 40 percent increase in atmospheric CO2, from about 270 parts per million (ppm) prior to the Industrial Revolution to 400 ppm—for the first time in modern history—in 2013. The upper safety limit for atmospheric greenhouse gases is considered to be 450 ppm by 2100.

Clearing of native forests has contributed to a 40 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. ©John T. Andrews

The visceral volume of video

That’s why a new video (shown below) from NASA is gaining attention. The climate model contained in it is the product of a new, ultra-high-resolution computer—one of the highest ever created at approximately 64 times greater than that of typical global climate models—and is the first simulation to show in such fine detail how carbon dioxide moves through the atmosphere and travels around the globe. And while most other models used for long-term climate simulations resolve climate variables such as pressures, temperatures, and winds on a horizontal grid consisting of boxes about 31 miles wide, this version resolves these features plus clouds, water vapor, and airborne particles (such as black carbon, dust, sea salt, and emissions from industry and volcanoes) on a horizontal grid consisting of boxes only 4.3 miles wide. The simulation produced nearly four petabytes (million billion bytes) of data and required 75 days of dedicated computation to complete.

The colors in the video represent a range of carbon dioxide concentrations: from 375 ppm (dark blue) to 385 ppm (red) to 395 ppm (light purple). Carbon monoxide emissions are depicted in white. Watch as the plumes swirl away from their natal grounds and disperse throughout the world on the winds. The simulation also illustrates how carbon dioxide levels differ in the northern and southern hemispheres and how they change with the seasonal growth of plants and trees.

If the current greenhouse gas emissions rate continues, by 2047 most ecosystems on Earth will be severely changed. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In addition to providing a striking visual of the movements of the invisible carbon dioxide gas, this kind of high-resolution simulation will help scientists better project future climate. If the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues, it is predicted that the Earth’s surface temperature could exceed historical ranges as early as 2047, affecting most ecosystems on Earth and the livelihoods of more than three billion people, and triggering ocean bio-geochemical changes that will have broad ramifications.

Studies have shown that people respond better to images than verbal facts and statistics; we are genetically wired to favor visuals over text. Let’s hope this video from NASA taps a visceral response from us all.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,