The Climate Lab That Sits Empty


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BOULDER, Colo. - Behind a locked door on the ground floor of a new University of Colorado science center here, a laboratory outfitted with specially reinforced concrete floors sits dark and empty, like a dining room set for a guest who never arrived. In this case, the no-show is a $2 million, 12-ton machine that is vital to addressing global warming.

The machine, a high-precision accelerator mass spectrometer, uses nuclear physics to detect the presence of a rare, heavy isotope of carbon. It enables scientists to distinguish fossil fuel emissions from all other sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, information crucial to monitoring and reducing those emissions.

There are only a handful of labs in the United States and elsewhere with the equipment to reliably make these measurements at the high precision required for atmospheric research. None has the capacity the Boulder lab would have to run the necessary number of measurements — about 5,000 per year. And the Boulder lab, unlike others with similar equipment, would be fully dedicated to monitoring global greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first sought funding for this program without success in 2012 and is trying yet again this year. But there seems to be little hope that lawmakers will finally provide the roughly $5 million for the machine and attendant research program. Worse, the whole national greenhouse-gas monitoring program may be at risk, if Congress approves President Trump’s proposed cuts to climate science.

Losing that program would be catastrophic to the world’s ability to track and address climate change. The monitoring system, called the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network and run by NOAA, is the most extensive network of its kind. It also provides the scale against which every other international institution calibrates its greenhouse gas measurements.

Every week, at six dozen or so sites around the world — deserts, mountaintops, island cliffs, remote oceans — volunteers collect air in two-liter glass flasks. The flasks are shipped to NOAA’s offices here, where scientists unpack these atmospheric postcards and measure the concentration of greenhouse gases within: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and others. The bottles are then sent on to a lab at the University of Colorado, where another team of researchers measures different isotopes in the gases to help identify their sources.

The data shows the global growth in concentrations of greenhouse gases, and what portion of those gases is being absorbed or released by oceans, forests, permafrost and other ecosystems. That information helped to determine the targets set by the international climate change accord agreed to by 195 nations in Paris in 2015.

The accelerator mass spectrometer allows scientists to measure carbon 14, a radioactive isotope that is critical to identifying carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. It is a marker of omission: Carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels contains no carbon 14 at all. (Over the millions of years it takes for plants to transform into coal or oil, the isotope decays away.)

If you want to understand the impact of fossil fuels on the climate, it would be helpful to measure exactly how much carbon dioxide they are contributing to the atmosphere. Countries including the United States report their fossil fuel emissions based on data about energy production, trading and usage, but the numbers are difficult to independently verify.

That’s where NOAA’s data comes in. It shows exactly which greenhouse gases are in the air, and where. The carbon 14 measurements give a much more precise picture of the source of the carbon dioxide, and which efforts to reduce emissions are succeeding — or not.

This year, the International Energy Agency published data showing that worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat in 2016 for the third straight year. Yet data from NOAA showed that the total concentration of carbon dioxide is rising at a faster pace than ever before.

There are a number of possible explanations for this divergence. The most likely one is that oceans or soils are absorbing less carbon dioxide than in the past. Another is that there are annual differences but that the underlying increase in emissions rates remains — and is driven by fossil fuels. A third is that fossil fuel emissions are not in fact going down, but rather that countries are underreporting them, knowingly or not. There is no evidence for this, but a clear signal from carbon 14 could help expose any reporting errors.

The greenhouse gas monitoring network costs about $7 million a year. Defunding it would be a huge mistake. The data it generates is helping scientists understand how our highly complex climate system works — and how we can help stabilize it to fend off environmental catastrophes.

This is precisely the kind of basic science the federal government needs to support. Yet President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a cut of up to one-third in NOAA’s oceanic and atmospheric research programs, with climate science a specific target.

For comparatively little money, the United States could be getting an independent count of our fossil-fuel-related emissions. And once the carbon 14 research was up and running, the government could expand the program, using the air flasks from around the world to verify other countries’ claims of emissions reductions.

As the United States retrenches, though, China is already heavily investing in atmospheric monitoring, including carbon 14 research. It’s just one more example of how an Asian superpower is stepping up to embrace the future as America chooses to render itself irrelevant.