New monitoring system clarifies murky atmospheric questions

April 19, 2012, University of Colorado at Boulder
A new technique to measure CO2 and trace gas emissions may be of help in monitoring greenhouse gases. Credit: National Park Service

A University of Colorado Boulder-led team has developed a new monitoring system to analyze and compare emissions from man-made fossil fuels and trace gases in the atmosphere, a technique that likely could be used to monitor the effectiveness of measures regulating greenhouse gases.

The research team looked at atmospheric gas measurements taken every two weeks from aircraft over a six-year period over the northeast United States to collect samples of CO2 and other environmentally important gases. Their method allowed them to separate CO2 derived from fossil fuels from CO2 being emitted by biological sources like , said CU-Boulder Senior Research Associate Scott Lehman, who led the study with CU-Boulder Research Associate John Miller.

The separation was made possible by the fact that CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas has no carbon-14, since the half-life of that carbon radio isotope is about 5,700 years -- far less than the age of , which are millions of years old. In contrast, CO2 emitted from biological sources on Earth like plants is relatively rich in carbon-14 and the difference can be pinpointed by atmospheric scientists, said Lehman of CU's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

The team also measured concentrations of 22 other tied to human activities as part of the study, said Miller of the CU-headquartered Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. The diverse set of gases impact climate change, air quality and the recovery of the , but their emissions are poorly understood. The authors used the ratio between the concentration level of each gas in the atmosphere and that of fossil fuel-derived CO2 to estimate the emission rates of the individual gases, said Miller.

In the long run, measuring carbon-14 in the atmosphere offers the possibility to directly measure country and state emissions of fossil fuel CO2, said Miller. The technique would be an improvement over traditional, "accounting-based" methods of estimating emission rates of CO2 and other gases, which generally rely on reports from particular countries or regions regarding the use of coal, oil and natural gas, he said.

"While the accounting-based approach is probably accurate at global scales, the uncertainties rise for smaller-scale regions," said Miller, also a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. "And as CO2 emissions targets become more widespread, there may be a greater temptation to underreport. But we'll be able to see through that."

A paper on the subject was published in the April 19 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, published by the American Geophysical Union. Co-authors include Stephen Montzka and Ed Dlugokencky of NOAA, Colm Sweeney, Benjamin Miller, Anna Karion, Jocelyn Turnbull and Pieter Tans of NOAA and CIRES, Chad Wolak of CU's INSTAAR and John Southton of the University of California, Irvine.

One surprise in the study was that the researchers detected continued emissions of methyl chloroform and several other gases banned from production in the United States. Such observations emphasize the importance of independent monitoring, since the detection of such emissions could be overlooked by the widely used accounting-based estimation techniques, said Montzka.

The atmospheric air samples were taken every two weeks for six years by aircraft off the coastlines of Cape May, N.J., and Portsmouth, N.H.

Fossil fuel emissions have driven Earth's atmospheric CO2 from concentrations of about 280 parts per million in the early 1800s to about 390 parts per million today, said Miller. The vast majority of climate scientists believe higher concentrations of the greenhouse gas CO2 in Earth's atmosphere are directly leading to rising temperatures on the planet.

"We think the approach offered by this study can increase the accuracy of emissions detection and verification for fossil fuel combustion and a host of other man-made gases," said Lehman. He said the approach of using carbon-14 has been supported by the National Academy of Sciences and could be an invaluable tool for monitoring by federal agencies like NOAA.

Unfortunately, NOAA's greenhouse gas monitoring program has been cut back by Congress in recent years, said Lehman. "Even if we lack the will to regulate , the public has a right to know what is happening to our atmosphere. Sticking our heads in the sand is not a sound strategy," he said.

Explore further: Slowing climate change by targeting gases other than carbon dioxide

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4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 19, 2012
Hear hear regarding the final quote, and very impressive science to boot.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 19, 2012
Seems like a vast improvement over current methods. Measuring the hard numbers if always better than calculated estimates, especially for compliance checking. I also found it interesting that they found several gas emissions that are band in the US using the same tech. The don't say specifically where but it's either off the coast of NH, or (you guess...) New Jersey.
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 20, 2012
Much better than the accounting method. I wonder what the results were in terms of what percentage of CO2 is technogenic and what is biogenic.
Anyone remember the JAXA results which demonstrated that the USA, western Europe and South America are net CO2 sinks, not emitters at all ?
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2012
Biofuels have C14. So do fossil fuels:

"Most man-made chemicals are made of fossil fuels, such as petroleum or coal, in which the carbon-14 should have long since decayed. However, such deposits often contain trace amounts of carbon-14"

5 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
I cannot understand your bias despite all the evidence, for some reason you chose to miss out the end of the sentence from that 'wiki carbon 14 in fossil fuels' quote of yours..

"varying significantly, but ranging from 1% the ratio found in living organisms to amounts comparable to an apparent age of 40,000 years for oils with the highest levels of carbon-14"

So trace amounts have been scientifically studied and the concentration ranges are understood. Science is such a wonderful collaborative community that these effects are most definitely taken into account when making their conclusions.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
Don't get sucked in Casualjoe....he has nothing better to do and he doesn't do this well at all. Your debate will ultimately wind up with you just filling in the info. he leaves out as your counter to his point...usually from the same source he uses. If you stick around long enough you'll have the same debate 20 times after 20 different articles.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 20, 2012
Ah, so this type of human behaviour has been well documented and the effects are understood by many scientifically minded people, thankyou for updating me, rubberman you have enhanced my understanding of things.
2 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012
So trace amounts have been scientifically studied and the concentration ranges are understood. Science is such a wonderful collaborative community that these effects are most definitely taken into account when making their conclusions.

But the article says: "The separation was made possible by the fact that CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas has no carbon-14"

The dichotomy cannot be reconciled.
3 / 5 (3) Apr 20, 2012
You bore me already.

You want more details, read the journals.
2 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012
They used to have a claimed method for proving CO2 was from the burning of fossil fuels. It was the C12/C13 ratio.

"It is often asserted that we can measure the human contribution of CO2 to the air by looking at the ratio of C12 to C13. The theory is that plants absorb more C12 than C13 (by about 2%, not a big signature), so we can look at the air and know which came from plants and which came from volcanos and which came from fossil fuels, via us. Plants are deficient in C13, and so, then, ought to be our fossil fuel derived CO2."

Big problem.

" C4 metabolism plants absorb more C13 than do C3 metabolism plants. Over the last 100 years weve planted one heck of a lot more grasses world wide than ever before. Grasses are often C4 metabolism"


2.3 / 5 (4) Apr 20, 2012
You bore me already.

I think that is the key difference between skeptics and cultists. Skeptics are genuinely curious and love to read about all kinds of things.

AGW fanatics lose interest in debating because they get their ass kicked so often.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2012
What does anyone care what you think of AGW Notpark. Your just a contrarian that likes to play the fool. Knock yourself out man.

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