Earth monitoring: Damn it’s frustrating
November 18, 2009, 11:45 am
Filed under: Global change

There’s a fascinating paper by Corinne Le Quéré and many other hands out in Nature Geoscience on what’s up with sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. The authors claim that the sinks are getting weaker, and that a greater proportion of the carbon dioxide emitted is staying in the atmosphere, which is a pretty big thing. They are not absolutely sure of this, and when they spoke to the press earlier this week they recognised that another recent analysis by Wolfganag Knorr suggested the sinks were sucking up just as great a proportion as they ever did. The datasets are not great, which is one reason for the uncertainty; another, as I understand it (haven’t dug into the matter) turns on how you filter out variability when looking for the trend. This matters not least because variability may be driving some of the trend: El Ninos, for example, decrease the tropical land sink because they dry places out, and if El Nino frequency is part of the long-term climate signal then removing them from the data means removing some of the trend too. Anyway, the paper doesn’t say for sure that the sinks are beginning to slow down, but the authors do find it likely-in-the-ipcc-sense, which means they assess the probability as 2 to 1 odds on or better. (Update: John Timmer at Ars Technica has more on the differences between the papers.)

SMAP also looks pretty cool

Now there’s some fascinating stuff in this, which I may come back to, but there’s also cause for deep frustration. A real sense of what the sinks are doing would be hugely helped by having better measurements of carbon dioxide, both from global monitoring networks and from satellites. But that just doesn’t seem to be a priority. Global ground based monitoring of carbon dioxide capable of showing regional effects is still underfunded — this summer in Boulder Pieter Tans was telling me that there was a lot more that could be done for relatively little money. And satellite measurements took a terrible blow when the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, OCO, didn’t make it to orbit in February. OCO could have been rebuilt and relaunched quickly: the team was all still there,the designs were good, it was as shovel-ready a piece of spending as you could wish for. But it wasn’t funded as such, and doesn’t seem to have any new money associated with it. So as I understand it the money to refly OCO will have to be gouged out of NASA’s existing earth science budget (8% of its total budget, because it’s not like the earth is a sexy supernova or galaxy or anything like that). I have to assume that that means it will fly later than it could have (and cost more); that probably means delays for SMAP, the soil moisture mission currently due to launch in 2013. SMAP would provide unparalleled data on one of the key parts of the planet — the part just beneath our feet that contains the root zones of plants and the water that those roots require.

Not to be treating such missions as a global priority strikes me as simply crazy. Now I know that there is an argument that the need for new climate science is overstated — that we know the outlook is bad, and that there is no science that is going to change the degree of action or inaction that that badness is held to merit. I understand that stressing a need for more data and science might be seen as offering reasons for delay. But the OCO and SMAP data really matter. They matter to understanding the processes going on — where the carbon is coming from and going to, how ecosystems are being effected, and so on. In SMAP’s case they even have operational implications — better soil moisture data means better forecasting. But despite the fact that great things turn on these issues, they don’t get the money. And their ground-based correlates, which offer even more bang for the buck, get penny pinched too.

Scientific monitoring isn’t going to save the world — but it will tell us what is going on as we try to adapt and to prioritise mitigations. Which means we should be taking it seriously.


“Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide” Corinne Le Quéré, Michael R. Raupach, Josep G. Canadell, Gregg Marland et al. Nature Geoscience (2009) | doi:10.1038/ngeo689

“Is the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions increasing?” Wolfgang Knorr Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L21710, (2009) | doi:10.1029/2009GL040613

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Interesting post. I have stumbled this for my friends. Hope others find it as interesting as I did.

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