The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) tracks 2-3 peta-gram increase in carbon release to the atmosphere during the 2014-2016 El Niño

Sci Rep. 2017 Oct 19;7(1):13567. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-13459-0.


The powerful El Niño event of 2015-2016 - the third most intense since the 1950s - has exerted a large impact on the Earth's natural climate system. The column-averaged CO2 dry-air mole fraction (XCO2) observations from satellites and ground-based networks are analyzed together with in situ observations for the period of September 2014 to October 2016. From the differences between satellite (OCO-2) observations and simulations using an atmospheric chemistry-transport model, we estimate that, relative to the mean annual fluxes for 2014, the most recent El Niño has contributed to an excess CO2 emission from the Earth's surface (land + ocean) to the atmosphere in the range of 2.4 ± 0.2 PgC (1 Pg = 1015 g) over the period of July 2015 to June 2016. The excess CO2 flux is resulted primarily from reduction in vegetation uptake due to drought, and to a lesser degree from increased biomass burning. It is about the half of the CO2 flux anomaly (range: 4.4-6.7 PgC) estimated for the 1997/1998 El Niño. The annual total sink is estimated to be 3.9 ± 0.2 PgC for the assumed fossil fuel emission of 10.1 PgC. The major uncertainty in attribution arise from error in anthropogenic emission trends, satellite data and atmospheric transport.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't