Climate change | Ecotrope

How carbon heavy are we? New scale will weigh in

Ecotrope | Jan. 17, 2011 11 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:42 p.m.

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A new network of monitoring stations will allow scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to trace greenhouse gas emissions back to their geographic sources. It will check the accuracy of greenhouse gas reporting and give governments an idea of whether reduction efforts are working.

A new network of monitoring stations will allow scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to trace greenhouse gas emissions back to their geographic sources. It will check the accuracy of greenhouse gas reporting and give governments an idea of whether reduction efforts are working.

Science Friday’s Ira Flatow just had an interesting chat with Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s CO2 Program.

Keeling is part of a team that is launching a new network of monitoring stations across the U.S. and the world that will track greenhouse gas emissions and allow scientists to figure out where clouds of carbon dioxide and methane gas in the atmosphere are coming from.

Within a year, there will be 50 new monitoring stations in the U.S. and another 50 spread out across the world. Scientists have have been tracking greenhouse gas emissions since the 1950s, Keeling said, with incremental increases over the years:

“Through these observations you can increasingly make inferences about where the carbon dioxide is coming from and going to – getting beyond the question of whether it’s just building up in the atmosphere. But our ability to date is really rather coarse. We can make statements about whole continents or large ocean basins, but to try to make statements about emissions on politically relevant footprints like counties or countries has not really been feasible yet. This network is targeting the expansion to allow that to happen.”

By taking measurements in the right places and accounting for wind patterns, he said, the new monitoring system will allow scientists to trace the origins of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a geographic region. Measurements taken at “clean sites” will provide a frame of reference for greenhouse gases detected in other places around the globe.

The network will provide some key data for countries that have committed to reporting their greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international framework to address climate change. Are their reports painting an accurate picture of how much carbon dioxide and methane are actually going into the atmosphere? Without testing the air for the gases, Keeling said, trying to reduce emissions would be “like going on a diet and assuming you know what you’re doing simply by counting calories. You’d very much like to know you’re actually losing weight.”

This will be an interesting experiment, indeed, with a lot of potential political ramifications. For one, some countries could be exposed for emitting more than they’ve admitted to. Some states or – even counties – could be in the limelight for being among the worst offenders. There’s also a chance it will point a finger at emissions we’re overlooking. What then?

Once the network is up and running I wonder if we’ll be able to say: OK, Multnomah County. You say you’re emitting less carbon dioxide? Hop on the scale and let’s find out.

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