Press Release

NASA Scientists develop tools for carbon measurement

By SpaceRef Editor
September 2, 2004
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NASA scientists have recently unveiled Internet software
tools that will aid in the removal of carbon dioxide from the

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.

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

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

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:

For information about NASA on the Internet, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.