Congress is considering spending bills that would significantly cut funding for key climate change research by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2017.

Among the losers: the oldest carbon dioxide observatories on the planet, the ability to track fossil fuel emissions in the United States and a program to study ocean acidification.

“We are asking for a small amount of money to do all the right things,” said James Butler, director of global monitoring at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL).

The spending bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee last week allocates $128 million for NOAA’s climate research, a 20 percent cut from the previous year. The bill allocates $1.7 billion for NASA’s earth science division, a 12 percent cut from 2016.

Republican appropriators termed climate and ocean services research “lower-priority,” which earned them a rebuke from Democrats.

“It’s important that we provide appropriate support across all the fields and not just the few mission directorates or a few of the sciences,” Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said. “So, to this end, I’m disappointed that the earth science funding was so dramatically cut.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed its comparatively less brutal spending bill in April. Senate appropriators chose to maintain funding at 2016 levels for both agencies. The differences between the House and Senate appropriators will have to be resolved during conference negotiations.

ClimateWire analyzed the House spending bill and NASA and NOAA’s original budget requests to identify programs that might suffer, and ones that will receive love, in 2017.

Carbon monitoring

Since the 1950s, NOAA has been tracking CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere at six observatories located in Mauna Loa, Hawaii; Summit, Greenland; Trinidad Head, Calif; the South Pole; Barrow, Alaska; and American Samoa. Thousands of scientists use the data generated at these iconic observatories to study the climate system.

The observatories are in dire need of updates. Congress has, in effect, kept funding flat since the 1970s, which has put them at operational risk, according to NOAA.

ESRL is beginning to dip into its research funding pot to pay for things like new electrical wiring to deal with corrosion, said Butler. Without adequate funding, two of the six observatories might be affected next year, he said.

“Adding up all those little things, like fuel and wear and tear and the superinflationary costs of these sites, and increasing demand for the information from these sites, we just need a little bit more,” he said. “We are not asking for a whole lot more, but a little bit more to just bring us back to speed so we are not dipping into research dollars to maintain these.”

NOAA requested an extra $3 million from Congress, though Butler said the actual need is closer to $12 million. But the plea fell on deaf ears in the House, as appropriators cut funding for climate labs run by NOAA by 17 percent below 2016 levels. The cut will not accrue solely to the baseline laboratories, which are a high priority at NOAA, but the observatories may go another year without an increase in funding.

Human-caused emissions

Nations signed a climate deal in Paris last year, and many submitted pledges to curb their CO2 emissions. NOAA would like to set up a facility that would allow scientists to check if nations are keeping their word.

“In the light of the Paris climate agreement, there’s going to be a very strong need for some form of objective verification for policy purposes,” said Pieter Tans, a climate scientist at ESRL. “We have an opportunity to come up with an observing system that will give us an objective tool to measure the amount of success that [nations’ climate] pledges have.”

At present, no one directly measures CO2 emissions in the atmosphere released by humans. CO2 has many origins, some natural, such as respiring trees, and some man-made, such as power plants. Isolating just the human contribution can be challenging because the natural emissions can be large and varying. So, NOAA scientists will rely on a quirk of nature: All living beings, including trees, respire a heavier CO2 molecule comprising a carbon isotope called C14. CO2 emitted by power plants, in contrast, does not contain C14. By tracking C14, scientists can pinpoint the carbon emissions of a particular region.

Most other proposals to track CO2 typically suggest the use of satellites, such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) that NASA launched in 2014 with the goal of identifying the sources and sinks of CO2 (ClimateWire, May 28, 2014). The European Space Agency also has similar projects in the pipeline.

But scientists who track CO2 with their boots firmly on the ground are skeptical about the utility of satellite data, which scientists have to tinker with to resolve biases in the data stream that can overwhelm the signals. Ultimately, satellites would have to detect changes of 0.1 part per million of CO2 in an atmosphere containing 400 ppm. That’s a level of accuracy that no satellite has so far accomplished, Tans said. It may take more than a decade for OCO-2’s data to be useful, he said.

The same goals could be accomplished using the proposed ground-based system. NOAA would like to track U.S. emissions by collecting 5,000 samples per year and analyzing them at a dedicated center in Colorado. Tans estimates the program would cost $5 million annually to operate.

“Which, in the big scheme of things, is nothing really,” he said. “It is a hell of a lot cheaper than satellites.”

NOAA requested a budget increase of $3 million for launching this program and for expanding its existing regional network of carbon measuring stations. This program also falls under climate labs, which suffer a 17 percent cut in the House spending bill.

Ocean tracking

The oceans are a large carbon sink, absorbing about a quarter of the CO2 emitted by humans between 2002 and 2011. NOAA has been measuring the uptake of CO2 by the oceans for more than 25 years, using a network of 40 moorings and oceangoing vessels.

The work has revealed that the oceans, on average, take up 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon a year. The uptake is not uniform throughout the oceans. In some parts, such as the equatorial Pacific Ocean, upwelling currents expel CO2 into the atmosphere. And in other parts, such as off the coast of Japan, a springtime phytoplankton bloom sucks CO2 back into the ocean.

“We have to study that very carefully to understand how all that balances out,” said Christopher Sabine, director of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

Ideally speaking, scientists could use more ships and moorings to get more accurate measurements, Sabine said.

“Right now, 40 moorings for the entire ocean is not very many, so we have to use various mathematical and statistical approaches for extrapolating the few measurements we have out to the global oceans,” he said. “We are fairly confident in what we’re doing, but more observations are better and we can begin to knock down that uncertainty.”

The House budget allocates the $42 million that NOAA requested for oceans monitoring and observation programs. But it does not fund related ocean acidification research that the Obama administration had identified as a priority.

The oceans have been acidifying due to the input of excess CO2, affecting some aquatic species with calcium carbonate shells. NOAA would like to launch a program to assess the vulnerability of various communities to the problem.

“That is the one piece of ocean acidification that has been very limited because of funding,” Sabine said.

The president requested an increase of $11 million in 2017 for integrated ocean acidification research, but the House appropriators instead cut funding for the program by 15 percent below 2016 levels. Senate appropriators allocated an extra $3.5 million to the program.

NASA earth sciences

The House spending bill allocates $1.7 billion for NASA’s earth sciences, a 12 percent cut from 2016 funding levels, while the Senate bill allocates $1.9 billion, slightly more than the president’s request. The appropriators do not specify how the cuts should be distributed across the directorate, but they did pick out their favorite programs.

The House bill directs NASA to prioritize the NASA-Indian Space Research Organization’s Synthetic Aperture Radar mission that would monitor ecosystem disturbances such as ice sheet collapse, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides once launched in 2020.

Senate appropriators stipulated that $131 million should be allocated for Landsat 9, an Earth-observing satellite that would be launched in 2020. They also allocated $90 million for PACE, a satellite that would track aerosols, clouds and oceans once launched in 2021.

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