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Observations of increasing carbon dioxide concentration in Earth’s thermosphere


Carbon dioxide occurs naturally throughout Earth’satmosphere. In the thermosphere, CO2 is the primary radiative cooling agent and fundamentally affects the energy balance and temperature of this high-altitude atmospheric layer1,2. Anthropogenic CO2 increases are expected to propagate upward throughout the entire atmosphere, which should result in a cooler, more contracted thermosphere3,4,5. This contraction, in turn, will reduce atmospheric drag on satellites and may have adverse consequences for the orbital debris environment that is already unstable6,7. However, observed thermospheric mass density trends derived from satellite orbits are generally stronger than model predictions8,9, indicating that our quantitative understanding of these changes is incomplete. So far, CO2 trends have been measured only up to 35 km altitude10,11,12. Here, we present direct evidence that CO2 concentrations in the upper atmosphere—probably the primary driver of long-term thermospheric trends—are increasing. We analyse eight years of CO2 and carbon monoxide mixing ratios derived from satellite-based solar occultation spectra. After correcting for seasonal–latitudinal and solar influences, we obtain an estimated global increase in COx (CO2 and CO, combined) concentrations of 23.5±6.3 ppm per decade at an altitude of 101 km, about 10 ppm per decade faster than predicted by an upper atmospheric model. We suggest that this discrepancy may explain why the thermospheric density decrease is stronger than expected.

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Figure 1: Residual VMRs of CO, CO2 and COx = CO+CO2, after removal of seasonal–latitudinal effects.
Figure 2: Height dependence of 2004–2012 COx linear trends.
Figure 3: Temporal variation of carbon at pressure level Z = −6(altitude 101 km) from the NCAR global mean model simulation.
Figure 4: Average carbon profiles.


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Work at NRL was funded by the Office of Naval Research and the NASA Causes and Consequences of the Minimum of Solar Cycle 24 Program. The ACE mission is funded primarily by the Canadian Space Agency. We thank S. McLeod and K. Walker for producing and providing access to the ACE retrievals, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research for providing the global mean model source code ( T. Conway and P. Tans of NOAA/ESRL provided the global mean tropospheric CO2 data. J.T.E. thanks D. Siskind and R. Meier for beneficial discussions and suggestions.

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J.T.E. conceived the study, analysed the data and model output, and prepared the manuscript. M.H.S. and D.P.D. conducted the model simulations. M.H.S. calculated carbon emissions from space vehicle launches. P.F.B. and C.D.B. provided guidance on the use of the ACE-FTS retrievals. C.D.B. developed the ACE-FTS retrieval algorithms. All authors discussed the results, interpretations and implications, and contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to J. T. Emmert.

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Emmert, J., Stevens, M., Bernath, P. et al. Observations of increasing carbon dioxide concentration in Earth’s thermosphere. Nature Geosci 5, 868–871 (2012).

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