Cuts could reverberate internationally
Continuous measurements of atmospheric CO2, carbon monoxide and methane form the backbone of NOAA's monitoring network. They are collected at the agency's six observatories -- in Hawaii, Alaska, Greenland, Antarctica, American Samoa and California -- and seven tall towers scattered across the United States.
NOAA supplements those measurements with air samples collected regularly in flasks on the ground and in the air, which provide information about a broader range of gases and help expand geographic coverage that helps scientists understand local variations in greenhouse gas output.
The majority of the monitoring sites are run by "volunteers" who submit samples and data to NOAA at no cost. At other sites, the agency must pay for measurements -- like air samples collected in flasks during regular flights of small, private planes at 15 U.S. sites.
Those pay-to-play sites were first on the chopping block when the recent budget cuts began. Now, with NOAA managers anticipating a 5 percent budget reduction in fiscal 2013, scientists in and out of the agency say they're worried that the greenhouse gas monitoring program will be forced to cut personnel.
Many say they're concerned that if NOAA's program continues to shrink, monitoring efforts in other countries could suffer. In addition to operating the largest global network measuring greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances, NOAA maintains standards that ensure other countries doing similar work are of high quality and in compatible formats.
The U.S. effort has served as a model -- and a continuing reference -- for programs in Europe, China, India and Brazil.
And with a new generation of CO2-monitoring satellites now in development, ensuring the continuation of ground-based measurements of greenhouse gases has taken on new importance, experts said.
Satellite data 'wasted' without ground monitoring
Japan's GOSAT, now in orbit, and NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, still in development, are designed to provide regular measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide in places ground measurements have not reached.
According to recent reports by the National Academy of Sciences and JASON, an independent group of scientists that advises the government, that kind of satellite coverage will be crucial to determine whether individual nations comply with emissions cuts outlined in future climate pacts.
But satellites cannot supplant ground-based monitoring networks, said Sander Houweling, an atmospheric scientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who helped organize the Science letter.
"In the foreseeable future, it is not going to be like that," Houweling said. "With measurements from satellites, we have to learn how to make sure they are on the same scale as ground-based measurements. In the current phase, we are exploring how to make use of measurements taken from space."
Canadell of the Global Carbon Project agreed. "This is not threatening the need for these atmospheric, high-precision measurements," he said. "To the contrary, it makes them even more critical. Otherwise, these hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on every single satellite get wasted."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500