Better regional monitoring of CO2 needed as global levels continue rising

Apr 24, 2008
Atmospheric Pollution
A research commentary in Science magazine is calling for a 10-fold increase in global CO2 monitoring efforts to quantify regional emissions reduction trends. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Monitoring Earth's rising greenhouse gas levels will require a global data collection network 10 times larger than the one currently in place in order to quantify regional progress in emission reductions, according to a new research commentary by University of Colorado and NOAA researchers appearing in the April 25 issue of Science.

The authors, CU-Boulder Research Associate Melinda Marquis and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Pieter Tans, said with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations now at 385 parts per million and rising, the need for improved regional greenhouse gas measurements is critical. While the current observation network can measure CO2 fluxes on a continental scale, charting regional emissions where significant mitigation efforts are underway -- like California, New England and European countries -- requires a more densely populated network, they said.

"The question is whether scientists in the United States and around the world have what they need to monitor regional fluxes in atmospheric carbon dioxide," said Marquis, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA. "Right now, they don't."

While CO2 levels are climbing by 2 parts per million annually -- a rate expected to increase as China and India continue to industrialize -- effective regional CO2 monitoring strategies are virtually nonexistent, she said. Scientists are limited in their ability to distinguish between distant and nearby carbon sources and "sinks," or storage areas, for example, by the accuracy of atmospheric transport models that reflect details of terrain, winds and the mixing of gases near observation sites.

"We are in uncharted territory as far as knowing how safe these high CO2 levels are for the Earth," she said. "Instead of tackling a very complex challenge with the equivalent of Magellan's maps, we need to use the equivalent of Google Earth."

Marquis and Tans propose increasing the number of global carbon measurement sites from about 100 to 1,000, which would decrease the uncertainty in computer models and help scientists better quantify changes. "With existing tools we could gather large amounts of additional CO2 data for a relatively small investment," said Marquis. "The next step is to muster the political will to fund these efforts."

Scientists currently sample CO2 using air flasks, in-situ measurements from transmitter towers up to 2,000 feet high and via aircraft sensors. The authors proposed putting additional CO2 sensors on existing and new transmitter towers that can gather large volumes of climate data. While Europe and the United States have small networks of tall transmitter towers equipped with CO2 instruments, such towers are rare on the rest of the planet, she said.

Satellites queued for launch in the next few years to help monitor atmospheric CO2 levels include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, said Marquis. The satellites will augment ground-based and aircraft measurements charting terrestrial photosynthesis, carbon sinks, CO2 respiration sources, ocean-atmosphere gas exchanges and CO2 emissions from wildfires.

Mandated by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1994, national emissions inventories for each country are based primarily on economic statistics to estimate greenhouse gases entering and leaving the atmosphere, said the authors. Such inventories are "reasonably accurate" for estimating atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels in developed countries.

But they are less accurate for other sources of CO2, like deforestation, and for emissions of other greenhouse gases, like methane, which is emitted as a result of rice farming, cattle ranching and natural wetlands, said the authors.

There is a growing need to measure the effectiveness of particular mitigation efforts by states or regions involved in pollution caps, auto emission reduction campaigns and intensive tree-planting efforts, Marquis said. The Western Climate Initiative, for example -- a consortium of seven western U.S. states and British Columbia -- set a goal last year of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent as of 2020.

Precise regional CO2 measurements also could help chart the accuracy of carbon trading systems involving "credits" and "offsets" now in use in various countries around the world, said Marquis. In such systems, companies exceeding CO2 emission caps can buy carbon credits from companies under the caps, and groups or companies can buy voluntary carbon offsets to compensate for personal lifestyle choices, such as airline travel.

"Independent verification through regional CO2 monitoring could help determine whether carbon credits or offsets being bought or sold are of value," Marquis said.

Source: University of Colorado at Boulder

Explore further: Hopes, fears, doubts surround Cuba's oil future

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Hopes, fears, doubts surround Cuba's oil future

20 hours ago

One of the most prolific oil and gas basins on the planet sits just off Cuba's northwest coast, and the thaw in relations with the United States is giving rise to hopes that Cuba can now get in on the action.

New challenges for ocean acidification research

Dec 19, 2014

Over the past decade, ocean acidification has received growing recognition not only in the scientific area. Decision-makers, stakeholders, and the general public are becoming increasingly aware of "the other carbon dioxide ...

Compromises lead to climate change deal

Dec 19, 2014

Earlier this month, delegates from the various states that make up the UN met in Lima, Peru, to agree on a framework for the Climate Change Conference that is scheduled to take place in Paris next year. For ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

earls
1 / 5 (3) Apr 24, 2008
Can't we just run some CO2 atmospheric scrubbing machine?!
Rick69
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 25, 2008
All of these researchers and scientists that live off of the taxpayers just keep cranking out new ways to insure their job security!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.