Mapping Photosynthesis from Space Will Help Farmers Prepare for Climate Change

If you’ve ever wondered what photosynthesis looks like from outer space, it's your lucky day. NASA is out with a new visualization that shows the phenomenon occuring around the globe, throughout the course of a month. 

When plants get too much light, they emit a neon glow. Cloroplast is converted to energy when the sun hits it and a tiny fraction of that, just one percent, is released into the atmosphere as fluorescent light. Scientists have been collecting satellite images of the neon glow for the last five years and now found a way to use it to map the photosynthesis process in more detail than ever.

Cool effect aside, photosynthesis is high on scientists’ list of things to study, because it could play a crucial role in preventing the changing climate, and it's damaging effect on agriculture. "Fluorescence could lead to breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of how carbon cycles through ecosystems—one of the key areas of uncertainty in climate science," NASA wrote in an blog post introducing the new video.

Specifically, climate scientists are eager to learn how effective photosynthesis could be as a way of extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Scientists first mapped plant fluorescence in 2011 to measure how temperature affected plant growth. Via NASA.

It's a notoriously fuzzy area of climate science. Experts haven't quite cracked the carbon cycle paradox: extra carbon dioxide can stimulate plant growth, allowing these plants to take additional carbon out of the atmosphere. But if carbon dioxide levels are too high, it can be saturating for photosynthesis. Scientists still aren't sure how much carbon dioxide plants can take out of the atmosphere, or for how long. 

Meanwhile, a skyrocketing population is not helping the issue. Increasing urban sprawl and industrialization are slowing the photosynthesis process, like turning the lights off in a greenhouse, a NASA study found.

This isn’t good news for farmers, who are dealing with damaged crops and extreme weather.

"For the first time, we are able to globally map changes in fluorescence over the course of a single month," NASA wrote. "This lets us use fluorescence to observe, for example, variation in the length of the growing season."  The hope is, with more detailed data tracking plant health around the globe, scientists can distinguish healthy vegetation from dying crops, and help farmers prepare for and respond to climate disasters of the future.

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