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"Carbon monoxide suspected in teen deaths" This headline was from a national news presentation, but all too often, we see similar headlines throughout the United States due to faulty heaters or cars left running in a closed garage. Fortunately, carbon monoxide is present in much smaller concentrations in the atmosphere. There is no question that carbon monoxide is a pollutant with potential to harm all living things. But, does CO also affect Earth's climate? Unlike carbon dioxide, a compound that contains the same atoms as carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide is not known as a direct contributor to climate change. It does, however, play a role in this area.

Carbon monoxide is different than most pollutants. It can persist in the atmosphere for about a month and can be transported long distances. However, it is not uniformly distributed around the Earth. This NASA Science Brief on Carbon Monoxide explains the issue further.

Although carbon monoxide is only a weak greenhouse gas, its influence on climate goes beyond its own direct effects. Its presence affects concentrations of other greenhouse gases including methane, tropospheric ozone and carbon dioxide.

Carbon monoxide readily reacts with the hydroxyl radical (OH) forming a much stronger, greenhouse gas--carbon dioxide. This, in turn, increases concentrations of methane, another strong greenhouse gas, because the most common way methane is removed from the atmosphere is when it reacts with OH. So, the formation of carbon dioxide leaves fewer OH for methane to react with,thus increasing methane's concentration. A NASA report indicates that carbon monoxide is responsible for a 13% reduction in hydroxyl concentrations and through other reactions, a 9% drop in sulfate concentrations. Sulfates are credited for offsetting some of the global warming due to greenhouse gases by reflecting incident solar radiation back to space.

Like many pollutants, carbon monoxide has both anthropogenic and natural sources. Natural sources include volcanoes and forest fires while human sources (which make up over half of all carbon monoxide produced) are mainly vehicle emissions and slash and burn agriculture, but also include some industrial activities.

As automobile emission controls have improved in recent years, carbon monoxide emissions in western countries have decreased. However, a rapid increase in industrialization and in the number of automobiles in rapidly developing countries like China and India have resulted in increased carbon monoxide emissions in those countries. Your team has been approached by an international foundation concerned about this increase. They are looking forward to your Earth System Science (ESS) analysis.

Biomass burning is the burning of vegetation. This burning includes fires started by lightning and fires started by humans. The latter includes fires for the purpose of land clearing to increase agricultural areas or to get rid of the stubble from the previous year's crops. NASA satellites are able to track the huge plumes of carbon monoxide resulting from these fires. For example, during 2007, large portions of Southeast Asia were blanketed by the smoke from human-induced fires.


Large cities have traditionally been known for their high concentration of carbon monoxide due to the large concentrations of motor vehicles and other human induced sources such as cooking. Mexico City is an example of a city known for its air's high levels of carbon monoxide. In recent years, residents of rapidly developing countries such as China, India and Brazil have greatly increased their use and purchase of motor vehicles. This is being accompanied by an increase in carbon monoxide emissions. Your team has been approached by a multinational organization interested in researching the trends in Beijing. They want to see the trends depicted from NASA satellite data along with an Earth System Science (ESS) analysis resulting from carbon monoxide concentrations.

Click here for a primer on accessing NASA carbon monoxide data.

An article published in 2005 (available here), contains NASA AIRS satellite images of carbon monoxide plumes mostly from biomass burning. The depicted areas include South America, Africa, and Mongolia. Because this data is somewhat dated, NASA scientists have enlisted your team's assistance in gathering new data from around the world. Your data visualizations and Earth System Science Analysis will assist NASA in determining the extent that biomass burning is taking place. Your work will add to their estimate of carbon monoxide's impact on the environment. They have asked that you select an area from the 2005 paper to examine the biomass burning events and the accompanying carbon monoxide pollution.

Click here for a primer on accessing NASA carbon monoxide data.


Date: 12/23/2010

Scenario Images:

California "Station Fire" 2009
Total column CO over the United States during the California station fire. Image: NASA/JPl

Tracking carbon monoxide from China
Image from NASA's Measure of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) instrument aboard NASA's Terra satellite - carbon monoxide in 2003. Image: NASA

U.S. carbon monoxide trends: 1980-2009
U.S. carbon monoxide trends: 1980-2009 Full description. Image: EPA

NASA's Aqua Satellite
NASA's Aqua satellite that carries the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) one of six intruments aboard. Image: NASA JPL



Carbon monoxide: Sources and health effects (Cycle A)
State of Wisconsin website that adresses the sources and health effects of carbon monoxide.


How Carbon Monoxide Affects our Air Health and the Environment (Cycle A)
From the Environmental Literacy Council. Background on carbon monoxide's impact on our air quality, where it comes from and its impact on the environment.


NASA Science missions: Aura (Cycle A)
Describes the role of the Aura satellite in measuring atmospheric constituents. Discusses how carbon monoxide is a precursor to tropospheric ozone.


Six common pollutants (Cycle A)
An EPA website that discusses the six criteria pollutants: ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and lead


Smog over Southeast Asia (Cycle A)
Smog and smoke from slash and burn agriculture and a drought from El Nino were making it difficult to breathe in many Southeast Asian countries. See also:
Smoke Over Lake Toba.


Windows to the Universe: carbon monoxide-CO (Cycle A)
Describes carbon monoxide and its natural and human sources.


Greenhouse gases Frequently asked questions (Cycle B)
Discusses the role carbon monoxide has in modulating methane


Interactions with Aerosols Boost Warming Potential of Some Gases (Cycle B)
Describes the strong warming effects of carbon monoxide, because of its role in reducing sulfates and concentrations of the hydroxyl radical in the atmosphere.


Methane and carbon monoxide in the troposphere (advanced) (Cycle B)
Scholarly paper that describes concentrations of carbon monoxide in the troposphere


NASA Video of Pollution from Fires (Cycle B)
"The concentration and global transport of carbon monoxide pollution from fires burning in Russia, Siberia and Canada is depicted in two NASA animations created with data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA's Aqua spacecraft." See also this link.


Other Indirect Greenhouse Gases - Carbon monoxide (Cycle B)
Describes how carbon monoxide, a weak greenhouse gas itself, is an agent for increasing methane and tropospheric ozone, more potent greenhouse gases.


Pollution from California Wildfires Spreads Across the United States (Cycle B)
This NASA/JPL website shows how pollution including carbon monoxide spread across the United States from the California Station Fire.


Tracking pollution produced in China as it moves to North America (Cycle B)
This article is republished from a NASA news release from March, 2008 - it shows pollution including carbon monoxide moving from China.


Understanding Carbon Monoxide as Pollutant and as Agent of Climate Change (Cycle B)
Explains that CO affects concentrations of methane, tropospheric ozone and carbon dioxide, all greenhouse gases. It also shows how concentrations of carbon dioxide vary widely around the world.


California Wildfires (Cycle C)
ESSEA module on the impact of California Wildfires on the environment, to include carbon monoxide pollution.


Carbon Monoxide (CO) 2002 - 2005 (Cycle C)
A visualization showing the spread of carbon monoxide across the globe during the years 2002 - 2005. Shown courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, this video is featured in the AMNH online Climate Change course.


Sample Investigations:


Air Quality Lesson on MY NASA DATA (Cycle A)
You are an outdoor sports event planner. Your facility has a soccer, football, ice hockey, and basketball league. You want to choose the best times of the year for outdoor and indoor sports activities. Use the data to make an informed decision about the best times of the year to plan your events.
Difficulty: beginner


The Awful Eight Lesson Plan (Grades 6-8) (Cycle A)
Students put on a play about the EPA's six criteria pollutants (including CO) as well as Volatile Organic Compounds and CFCs.

See Procedure under investigation link.
Difficulty: beginner


Using NASA's Earth Observation Data Tool to Study Carbon Monoxide (Cycle A)
A chapter in the Earth Observation Toolbook. You will investigate the relationship between atmospheric carbon monoxide, a harmful gaseous pollutant, and aerosols, tiny solid airborne particles such as smoke from forest fires and dust from desert wind storms.

Click on "step-by-step instructions" under investigation link.
Difficulty: beginner


Air pollution tragedy: A case study (Grades 9-12) (Cycle B)
Students see the importance of various specialties in assessing pollution.

Included under procedure in investigation link.
Difficulty: beginner


Carbon Monoxide and Population Density - MY NASA DATA (Cycle B)
The purpose of this investigation is to study the carbon monoxide level at a fixed latitude to determine if there is a relationship to population density.
Difficulty: beginner


Criteria Pollutants (Cycle B)
Students collect air pollution information and organize them using a concept map.

Included under procedure in investigation link.
Difficulty: beginner


Comparison of carbon monoxide concentration using Giovanni- AIRS (Cycle C)
In this investigation, students can compare the total column carbon monoxide concentrations for different days.
Go to the NASA Giovanni AIRS Online Visualization and Analysis web site. Select a date you are interested in then select CO Volume mixing ratio. Then select the pressure level (Upper and lower must be equal). Then, generate the visualization. Repeat for another day and compare. Seasonal and annual variations in carbon monoxide can be seen. Concentrations are in Volume mixing ratio – the ratio of the density of CO to the density of the atmosphere.
Difficulty: advanced


Human Effect - MY NASA DATA (Cycle C)
The activity is designed to investigate changes in air quality due to human actions, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and crop burning.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties of objects and materials
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Changes in environments
        • Science and technology in local challenges
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
        • Science and technology in society
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
        • Nature of science
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Structure and properties of matter
        • Chemical reactions
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal and community health
        • Natural resources
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • use symbolic forms to represent and analyze mathematical situations and structures;
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • build new mathematical knowledge through their work with problems;
      • develop a disposition to formulate, represent, abstract, and generalize in situations within and outside mathematics;
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      • monitor and reflect on their mathematical thinking in solving problems.
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on learning to reason and construct proofs as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • select and use various types of reasoning and methods of proof as appropriate.
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      • extend their mathematical knowledge by considering the thinking and strategies of others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize connections to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • recognize, use, and learn about mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and software.
      • Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
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