An impressive YouTube video has been making its rounds over the past week, appearing at first glance to show high-resolution satellite images of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Rather than images from space, however, the Vulcan Project is actually a revolutionary new model of CO2 emissions building on and extrapolating from existing models of more conventional pollutants. The project, funded by NASA and the Department of Energy, is the work of a team at Purdue University in Indiana.

A compilation of many different databases, the Vulcan Project uses approaches pioneered by conventional pollutant tracking to model CO2 emissions for industrial, commercial, residential, utility, cement, and mobile sources. The project uses existing maps of nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions and other pollutants, and estimates the carbon content of fuels producing those NOx emissions to create a similar spatially explicit carbon emissions map.

The Vulcan Project also models dynamic processes such as traffic emissions over the course of the day, generating real-time estimates of CO2 emissions for the entire country. It even has hourly estimates of vehicle emissions from all the major roadways. It provides publicly available data on county and state level emissions by sector, along with high-resolution images of emissions, as shown below.

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Total U.S. Carbon Dioxide emissions at a 10 km by 10 km resolution. See Figure from the Vulcan Project.

In addition to modeling emission sources, the Vulcan Project also models CO2 dissipation and flow in the atmosphere. While CO2 is generally a well-mixed gas, it does not dissipate immediately upon release, so areas with high emissions can have elevated local CO2 concentrations. These concentrations pose no direct health risk for people, but they are interesting to examine from an academic perspective, and can help improve understanding of the role of anthropogenic emissions in the carbon cycle. The Project can also help model sinks, examining areas of the U.S. that absorb more carbon than they emit.

The Vulcan Project provides an independent bottom-up model of U.S. CO2 emissions that gives results similar to but slightly different from existing top-down estimates. For example, the Vulcan model suggests that the southeastern U.S. is a larger source of emissions than estimated in other models, while the northeast has a smaller footprint as a result of higher population densities and relatively cleaner generation capacity (e.g., fewer coal-fired power plants).

“We’ve been attributing too many emissions to the northeastern United States, and it’s looking like the southeastern U.S. is a much larger source than we had estimated previously,” Kevin Gurney, project leader and assistant professor of earth and atmospheric science at Purdue said in a statement releasing the Vulcan CO2 maps.

The Vulcan Project provides an important first step in creating accurate, high-resolution models of CO2 emissions, and it is likely to prove an important tool for researchers. Over the next few years, the launch of an orbital carbon observer satellite is expected to provide the sort of actual real-time carbon emissions data that are modeled in the Vulcan Project, and those results should provide an interesting independent validation of the Vulcan results.

Zeke is an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with a strong interest in conservation and efficiency. He was previously the chief scientist at C3, an energy management and efficiency company,...