El Nino weather phenomenon puts more carbon in air

A NASA satellite has found another thing to blame on El Nino — a recent record high increase of carbon dioxide in the air.

A NASA satellite has found that El Nino contributed to a record carbon dioxide increase

In this Sept. 16, 2014, file photo, firemen spray water in an attempt to extinguish bush fires in Siak Riau province, Indonesia. A new NASA satellite finds that El Nino is to blame for a recent record high increase of carbon dioxide in the air, which caused, among other things, increased forest fires in Asia. (Rony Muharrman/Associated Press)

A NASA satellite has found another thing to blame on El Nino — a recent record high increase of carbon dioxide in the air.

The super-sized El Nino a couple of years ago led to an increase of 3 billion tons of carbon in the air, most from tropical land areas. The El Nino made it more difficult for plants to suck up man-made carbon emissions and sparked fires that released more carbon into the atmosphere.

The effect was so large that it was the main factor in the biggest one-year jump in heat-trapping gas levels in modern record, NASA scientists said.

Scientists have long known that carbon dioxide levels spike during an El Nino, the natural occasional warming of parts of the central Pacific that causes droughts in some places, floods in others and generally adds to warmer temperatures worldwide.

Data from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which was launched in 2014, provides more specifics on how that happens and how it affects the continents differently.

Researchers found that in drought-struck parts of South America, for instance, plants grew less. There were more fires in Asia, and there was an increased rate of leaf decay in Africa. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.

This graphic shows El Nino's impact on the amount of carbon in 2015 relative to 2011, detected from Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) and OCO-2 data. (Science)

Debra Wunch, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Toronto and one of the study co-authors, said the findings are relevant here at home, too.

"The amount of carbon dioxide emissions that we emit into the atmosphere and where they end up — whether they remain in the atmosphere or they are taken up by forests around the world  — is important to Canadians."

That 3 billion tons of carbon, while significant, is still dwarfed by the 10 billion tons a year that comes from the burning of coal, oil and gas, said Scott Denning, a Colorado State University atmospheric scientist.

Study co-author Annmarie Eldering, NASA's deputy project scientist for the satellite, said the new results show how El Nino can counteract efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Largest increase since 1959

Human-caused carbon dioxide emissions were roughly flat in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures show that 2015 saw a rise in carbon in the air 3.03 parts per million, the largest since scientists started tracking emissions in Hawaii in 1959.

Normally about 25 percent of the human-caused carbon emissions are sucked up by plants on land, but during this powerful El Nino that was only 5 percent, said Junjie Liu, a NASA scientist and study lead author.

Oceans took out more than normal amount of carbon out of the atmosphere, but it wasn't enough to compensate for the land deficit, Eldering said.

Jonathan Overpeck, a University of Michigan scientist who was not part of the study, said the research revealed that the regional links between carbon dioxide and El Nino are more complex than previously thought, and raised concern about how the earth will respond to more future warming.

As the world warms, the tropics could add to carbon to the atmosphere in the future instead of taking it out of the air and wildfire emissions are likely to get more severe, Overpeck said.

And some computer simulations say the frequency of El Nino will increase in the future with climate change, Denning said during a NASA press conference.

"In this sense, the 2015-16 El Nino is a glimpse of what is to come," Overpeck said in an email.

Wunch said the data the researchers continue to collect over the next several years, will lead to a much better understanding of the the carbon cycle, where the CO2 is coming from and where it's going to.

"'Those are pieces of the puzzle that we're really excited to learn about."

With files from CBC News.