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Environment | Science

Northwest Scientists Keeping An Eye On Carbon

In Copenhagen Friday, world leaders said they have a climate change agreement that includes verifying whether countries are cutting as much carbon dioxide as they promise.

Christy George reports scientists here are part of a global movement to track carbon.

Rain or shine or snow, Kent Davis keeps Oregon State University’s carbon monitoring network humming.

NCAR does basic research into Earth weather and climate, the Sun and space weather, and global climate change, including tracking greenhouse gas emissions.

Kent Davis: "During the night we might measure 600-650 parts per million."

There’s more to do than just count carbon dioxide parts per million. Scientists want to know how nature breathes that CO2 in and out. 

Kent Davis: "It takes a considerable record of data to really describe what happens during a dry year? What happens during a wet year? What happens in the winter? What happens in the summer? What happens when it’s really warm in the beginning of spring and wet and a lot of sunshine?"

Kent Davis tends Oregon State University’s five carbon monitoring stations. Tall towers and instruments at the Summit site measure how trees, vegetation and even the soil itself “breathes” carbon dioxide and oxygen in and out of the forest.

So the forest here in Summit, Oregon, is full of instruments – a tall tower, a short tower, and carbon monitors sampling the air, the soil, even tree sap – all to measure carbon dioxide throughout the year, and over the decades.

Now multiply all that by five sites with more carbon-counting equipment from Newport to Burns. And that’s just Oregon.

So multiply the data again by 50 states in the U.S. And then add in more data – from the ocean, satellites and aircraft.

Here in Boulder, Colorado is the epicenter of national climate monitoring. There are a slew of agencies but most important is the National Center for Atmospheric Research – NCAR.

NCAR collects data using satellites and two planes – a Navy surplus C-130 and a Gulfstream 5.

Some of the instruments are built right here at NCAR’s fabrication laboratory, headed by Jack Fox.

Jack Fox: "We can actually say we have instruments tht are on some moons of Jupiter, in fact."

Carbon doesn’t stop at national borders, so carbon monitoring can’t, either.

NCAR uses supercomputers to create complex system models of Earth’s climate system, as well as run simulations of possible future scenarios. Scientists at universities throughout the US also use the computing center for work in geophysics and solar physics. At the Visualization Lab, scientists can create animations of their models.

And, well, people lie. Especially when they’re self-reporting.

And one way or another, reducing carbon emissions is going to be expensive.

Pieter Tans: "It’s okay, self-reported, as long as no money attached – in the near future there will be a LOT of money attached."

Pieter Tans of the Earth Systems Research Lab is working on verifying what countries really emit.

Pieter Tans: "Maybe ten years from now countries will claim we’ve cut our emissions by whatever 15%, 20% etc etc. My prediction is that when we compare that measured rate of increased CO2 with the claimed emissions reductions, it won’t add up."

So every country on the planet needs to collect data on the ground, and share it with everyone else.

Then scientists pump that data into complex computer models that predict various scenarios.

NCAR partners with the National Science Foundation to maintain and operate two research planes, a fast Gulfstream V jet and the larger C-130 cargo plane, both housed near NCAR at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. Scientists can use the planes to study weather, climate, air quality and pollution and the chemistry at different levels of the Earth’s atmosphere.

At NCAR, it takes a lot of computing power.

These are big, planet-scale models.

Phil Mote: "We’re more interested in the regional response of things."

Phil Mote heads the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU and he wants to create models that look just at climate change in the Northwest.

Phil Mote: "Not just temperature but other things that matter – like the extreme daily rainfall, average wind-speed for producing wind energy, heat-waves, droughts, things like that."

And he’s hoping for help from you.

If you want to volunteer, your home computer can hook into Phil Mote’s system and help crunch the data.

All this data collecting and modeling will help policymakers.

Oregon officials want to know how best to reduce forest fires, because when trees burn, they emit lots of carbon.

Jack Fox heads the “Fab Lab” at NCAR, where his staff designs and builds one-of-a-kind precision instruments to help scientists observe, measure, photograph and track everything from greenhouse gas emissions on Earth to magnetic fields on the Sun.

So Oregon State professor Beverly Law and her post-doc students spent years studying how much carbon is released during five Oregon wildfires.

Without her data, the best national estimate of how much CO2 goes into the atmosphere in a forest fire is about 30 percent.

Turns out it’s only about 1% to 3%.

Beverly Law: "It’s not very much and it’s not as much as people expect. When you see a lot of billowing smoke, you think that’s a lot of carbon going into the atmosphere, but it’s not."

Law and her team presented their data this week at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

They also compared the carbon impact of wildfires versus thinning, versus burning forest debris for biomass energy, versus harvesting some trees for timber.

Beverly Law: "The fire didn’t come close, the fires didn’t, even in the big fire years of 2002-2003. "

That conclusion may not be what loggers, or policymakers want to hear.

But Beverly Law says if the policy is going to work, people need to listen to the scientists.

Beverly Law: "They absolutely need these kinds of observations and methods for saying are the policies working?"

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