Mini Lesson

Systems and System Models: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Model (2014)

Mini Lesson

Review the video below and address the questions that follow.

Example Questions for Students:

  1. Describe the phenomenon you observe.
  2. What patterns do you see in this model?
  3. How do Data Visualizers make this video?  Where do these ideas come from?
  4. What are the limits of this model?
  5. How is this model precise? What benefits are there in using this model?
  6. What scientific principles are guiding this phenomenon?
  7. Predict the future of the phenomenon based on the model you've observed.
  8. What evidence of Earth System interaction (among Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Biosphere, Cryosphere, Geosphere) do you see?
  9. What question would you like to research based on this model?


An ultra-high-resolution NASA computer model has given scientists a stunning new look at how carbon dioxide in the Atmosphere travels around the globe. Plumes of carbon dioxide in the simulation swirl and shift as winds disperse the greenhouse gas away from its sources. The simulation also illustrates differences in carbon dioxide levels in the northern and southern hemispheres and distinct swings in global carbon dioxide concentrations as the growth cycle of plants and trees changes with the seasons.

Scientific data is used to develop models that describe Earth processes with fidelity and project alternate scenarios when baseline conditions are changed. Scientific models allow us to experiment with and understand a phenomenon that is too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to detect directly using our senses.

The carbon dioxide visualization was produced by a computer model called GEOS-5, created by scientists at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. The visualization is a product of a simulation called a “Nature Run.” The Nature Run ingests real data on atmospheric conditions and the emission of greenhouse gases and both natural and man-made particulates. The model is then left to run on its own and simulate the natural behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere. This Nature Run simulates January 2006 through December 2006. While Goddard scientists worked with a “beta” version of the Nature Run internally for several years, they released this updated, improved version to the scientific community for the first time in the fall of 2014.