This page's content is no longer actively maintained, but the material has been kept on-line for historical purposes.
The page may contain broken links or outdated information, and parts may not function in current web browsers.

Education: The Carbon Question

Preliminary Carbon Investigations and Training

Figure 1

Figure 1: A Satellite Image Showing Deforestation in Brazil. Source: NASA's Earth Observatory

A series of Preliminary Carbon Investigations and Training is provided to help Young Investigators gain a more in-depth understanding of the carbon research problem. While these are essential training exercises for students who elect to respond with a research proposal to the Young Investigators Carbon Initiative Call for Proposals, they are also beneficial to students participating in the study, Carbon in a Local Ecosystem: Measuring Carbon Storage.

The following investigations are designed to familiarize student researchers with a range of data and tools that scientists use to study the global carbon budget. More specific topics addressed also include: the missing carbon sink, the quantity of carbon stored in different regions around the globe, the factors that influence the carbon cycle and those that produce changes in the amount of carbon stored on land. Through studying these topics, students will gain and understanding of different data sets and tools and their associated strengths and limitations for investigating different types of research questions. The focus will be on two main types of research tools that have been developed to acquire carbon storage data at different time and spatial scales: 1) direct, ground-based measurement of the carbon content of biomass and 2) satellite or remote sensing data.

The introductory investigations also explore such pertinent questions as:

  1. How are ecosystems around the world changing?
  2. What role do ecosystems play in the carbon cycle and how do ecosystem changes, both natural and human-related, affect carbon storage on land?
Figure 2

Figure 2: A Flux Tower. Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory DAAC

Maps of biomes and global biodiversity allow researchers to understand carbon storage at the landscape-scale through the analysis of Earth's general surface features. However, large-scale studies are enhanced through the incorporation of data from smaller-scale studies like the one conducted in a local ecosystem such as Black Rock Forest, studied by the NASA GISS ICP Team. These small-scale studies are used in conjunction with vegetation maps to extrapolate carbon storage for larger areas, such as the northeastern deciduous forest. Direct measurements are critical to derive a quantitative, detailed snapshot of the carbon contained in an ecosystem.

Scientists use satellite images to gain a global perspective about land and ocean carbon by capturing information. The technique is called remote sensing. Satellite images can be used to reveal details about changes in the land surface characteristics that can be produced by such events as: reforestation, deforestation, human development and ecosystem degradation (Figure 1). This technology allows researchers to detect changes in vegetation between seasons and from year-to-year. Thus, satellites provide researchers with a qualitative perspective of carbon storage rather than absolute values of carbon storage.

The final tool you will use to investigate carbon is flux tower data which captures smaller-scale carbon fluxes from landscapes using sensors that detect exchanges of carbon dioxide between vegetation and the atmosphere. Flux towers are built so that measurements can be taken throughout the forest canopy, from the ground level to the tops of the trees (Figure 2).

At the conclusion of the Preliminary Investigations described below, students are presented with two research opportunities where they can determine which of the available carbon data and tools will best contribute to what we understand about the carbon budget and the missing sink. Depending on the project you select, you will prepare a scientific paper or proposal to educate others about your research.


  1. Preparing a Scientific Presentation: What Do We Know About Carbon?
  2. Using the Right Tools to Study Carbon: Maps and the Biodiversity of World's Biomes
  3. Using the Right Tools to Study Carbon: Satellite Images and Global Distribution of Vegetation
  4. Using the Right Tools to Study Carbon: Fire and Carbon
  5. Using the Right Tools to Study Carbon: Carbon Variability and Flux Tower Data

Return to The Carbon Question - Research Projects main page.