Weather data is big business in the United States, with services like AccuWeather, the Weather Channel and Weather Underground together generating more than $1 billion in revenue each year.

Now, one of those companies -- the newly renamed Earth Networks, which owns the popular WeatherBug website and desktop weather widget -- is hoping to do the same for climate data. The company, formerly AWS Convergence Technologies Inc., said today it has partnered with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to launch the world's largest greenhouse gas monitoring network.

Earth Networks has pledged $25 million in private funding over five years for the new venture. It will entail installing sensors to measure the levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the air at 100 sites -- half in the United States, a quarter in Europe and the remainder sprinkled around the globe. The company has installed the sensors at two locations so far: Scripps' research pier on its La Jolla, Calif., campus and a site on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The partnership also includes a new research center at Scripps, the Earth Networks Center for Climate Research.

Traditionally, governments and academic institutions have run the networks that monitor Earth's greenhouse gas output -- not business interests. In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains four observatories and a network of nine tall towers that monitor greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and collects additional measurements using aircraft and commercial ships.

NASA funds another network, the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment, that collects information on greenhouse gases at nearly a dozen sites around the world, including stations in China, Norway and American Samoa.

Selling to governments and energy companies
But Earth Networks thinks it will be able to market the information it collects to federal and state governments, energy companies and the agricultural sector -- much as it already sells data collected by its private weather and lightning monitoring networks -- it will also make the climate data available to scientists and the general public.

Company president and CEO Bob Marshall said he hoped the new network will "have very broad and significant implications for improving climate science," and create new capacity to judge whether efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions are succeeding.

Right now, researchers are confident they know how much carbon is produced worldwide by human activities and what fraction of that remains in the atmosphere or is absorbed by "sinks" on land or in oceans. What they can't do, and may not be able to do for several years, is independently monitor an individual nation's contribution to the overall total, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2009 (ClimateWire, Dec. 14, 2009).

(Current U.N. rules require countries to submit national emissions inventories, but the data are self-reported and not required regularly from all countries.)

The new network could change that, said Scripps director Tony Haymet, who runs a research institution long known as the home of the iconic Keeling curve. The graph shows the steep climb in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958, when Scripps researcher Charles David Keeling began collecting measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

Moving way beyond Mauna Loa
"We've been measuring CO2 in the atmosphere, the global average, at Mauna Loa and in a few other places for 53 years," Haymet said. "We've always wanted to somehow do this regionally. Our dream these last few years has been to replicate our scientific instruments and put them in enough locations that we could start to address these questions."

Haymet said the new network might one day be able to measure the net CO2 or methane output of northeastern states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or calculate the progress of the emissions reductions effort laid out by California's climate law, A.B. 32, thanks to the sheer number of planned measuring sites.

"Our need to deliver more data on greenhouse gases can't really wait another decade," Haymet said. "This has accelerated things by 10 years."

But developing the new capability required a compromise. Scripps' existing greenhouse gas monitoring sites at Mauna Loa and Trinidad Head, Calif., employ sophisticated homegrown instruments that can sniff out more than 40 greenhouse gases but cost $2 million each. The joint venture with Earth Networks will employ off-the-shelf instruments that cost closer to $25,000 each with more limited monitoring capability.

"The secret to getting this done right away is that on day one, the sites will just measure the two most important greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane," Haymet said. "That's the trick, the compromise."

Employing off-the-shelf technology will produce numbers that aren't quite as precise as the "few hundredths of a part per trillion" accuracy produced by Scripps' existing instruments, said Scripps geochemistry professor Ray Weiss. But the data will be "plenty accurate" for scientific purposes, he said.

As for the idea of breaking with tradition and relying on private enterprise to supply scientific data on greenhouse gas emissions, Weiss said it was "completely new" to him but he welcomed the idea. "All of my work heretofore has been sponsored by government agencies."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500