by Judith Curry
How confident can we be in our current and (recent) past observations of atmospheric composition and its impact on the Earth’s radiation balance?
The title of this post is derived from an article at Picarro blog, entitled Back to the Future: A Conversation with Jim Butler, Director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division. The occasion of for the interview was to discuss the recent Global Monitoring Annual Conference, held by NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL).
The conference presentations are available online. I’ll highlight 3 presentations here, that were mentioned in Butler’s interview. First, I would like to mention the last slide from the Introductory presentation made by Butler and Alexander McDonald. The last slide says:
Official Prediction: During the next 10 years, the Earth System will deliver a world changing Black Swan event. It may become evident first at the Global Monitoring Annual Conference. – Alexander MacDonald, May 15, 2012.
Well that was certainly a catchy way to start off the conference. So what do you think he means by a world changing black swan event? Does Hurricane Katrina qualify? The Russian heat wave and Pakistan floods? If so, it seems that we have several black swan events per decade, in which case this is a pretty safe prediction.
Steve Wofsy of Harvard presented one of the keynote presentations: Atmospheric Chemical Composition, Climate, and Societal Implications. Some text excerpts:
Global atmospheric concentrations of CO2, CH4 and N2O are largely under human control, affecting climate and global atmospheric chemical processes. This talk discusses measurements of these gases in two major aircraft campaigns: HIAPER Pole‐to‐Pole Observations program (“HIPPO”, sponsored by NSF and NOAA) and CalNEX (sponsored by NOAA and CARB), and their synergy with measurements at NOAA surface, tower, and aircraft profile stations. New information on the drivers of long‐term changes in the global atmosphere are explored, emphasizing interpretation of data for CO2 and other GHGs from the NOAA network, and new information on CH4 emissions in the Arctic region.
The HIPPO data show:
- Dense pollution at both very high and low altitudes in the Arctic. Unexpected distributions of Black Carbon (NOAA SP-2; radiative forcing?). (Not shown here).
- Sources of CH4 in the Arctic from from the ocean surface, significant compared to fossil fuel extraction and land surface.
Analysis of data from HIPPO and CalNEX flights, and NOAA surface stations and tall towers, shows:
- Global sources of N2O are stronger (2x) in the tropics than given in inventories, and the influence is invisible to surface stations (see next slide for CO2).
- Agricultural sources of N2O in the US are 2x to 4x bigger than in current inventories.
As summarized by Butler in his interview:
Wofsy focused on how we can merge different types of observations. Using results of several years of HIAPER Pole-to-Pole (HIPPO) missions and comparing those to our ground-based networks, he showed what you can miss if you are only measuring on the ground or only measuring in the air. If you can connect systems of ground-based and mid-tropospheric observations, you can get a coherent set of measurements that can be useful for initiating and validating satellite retrievals and informing model development. The result is that you get much more than either set of measurements would offer alone.
The other keynote presentation was given by Ron Prinn of MIT, entitled: National Emissions Verification by Merging Earth System Measurements, Global Social Data, and Earth System Models. Text excerpts:
Looking to the Future
Enhancing Understanding as well as Addressing Essential Needs to Verify Emission Reductions, Requires Very Important Improvements in Current Capabilities
- Significant advances in the Global Observing System and Economic Data Collection System with close attention to Precision & Accuracy
- For Greenhouse Gases: Higher time & Space Resolution; GLOBAL measurements (SURFACE, PROFILES, MOLE FRACTIONS, FLUXES); ISOTOPIC Composition
- Significant improvements in: Adjointed Models of Natural Processes; Analysed Atmospheric & Oceanic Circulation; & Economic Emission Modeling
It is difficult to do justice to this presentation with brief exceprts, there are some innovative ideas here and the entire presentation is worth looking at.
From Jim Butler’s interview:
Ron Prinn added to [Wofsy’s] concept by demonstrating what is needed to develop a useful and relevant inversion model that translates the data into information. He also made the point that we can move the models further forward by incorporating socio-economics. Ultimately it will take high-quality physical, chemical, and socioeconomic data for inversion models to provide the information society demands. So, I think that, together, those two speakers captured the essence of where we need to go with observations and models.
According to Butler’s interview, Peter Tan’s presentation was a highlight of the Conference: Are oceanic and terrestrial sinks of CO2 not able to keep up with emissions? Conclusions from the talk:
- Large missing sinks are alive and well. Fossil fuel emissions are an ever more dominant factor in the carbon cycle.
- For credible projections of the response of the carbon cycle to climate change, research needs to focus more on sinks.
- Much better emissions estimates, even on a global scale, are needed to better quantify how the carbon cycle is responding to ongoing climate change and management practices.
There is much (welcome) focus on uncertainty in Tan’s talk.
Butler’s comments on Tan’s talk:
JB: Well, for one, it was based primarily on high quality data and the model was state-of-the-art, so there was almost no way to deny its main conclusions. That was a solid paper because it was based on the best information we had at the time and it admitted its weaknesses ‒ it was honest. The thing that enticed everyone is that we had no clue what was going on. It looked like possibly 20%, 25%, or maybe even 30% of the carbon in the atmosphere was being taken up by the land, when all the time we knew that people had been deforesting, so how was this possible? We had previously thought of forests as being in carbon balance. Trees grow and take up CO2 and trees fall, decay, and emit CO2. Everyone had a lot of ideas, but we really didn’t know. In order to understand, we had to do the studies.
Ultimately, this kicked up modeling efforts. It kicked up a lot of measurement efforts, forest inventories, and soil inventories to understand how this sink was distributed across the planet. A few years ago, carbon cycle scientists in the U.S. released a synthesis and assessment report that compared bottom-up inventories with NOAA’s top-down inversion, Carbon Tracker, which was based on atmospheric measurements. You learn about the individual pieces by doing bottom-up work, but ultimately, the sum of the parts, which has high uncertainty, must be validated with high quality, atmospheric observations. We have learned a lot within these past years of research, yet we still don’t fully understand how the terrestrial biosphere is going to respond to climate change.
Interview with Jim Butler
Some excerpts from the Q&A with Jim Butler:
GJ: Atmospheric scientists and other researchers measuring GHGs in the U.S. and globally look to NOAA and ESRL GMD as a leader. Over the next few years, what are the major leadership challenges your team will face and how do you envision overcoming them?
JB: I would say there are several levels of leadership that are needed. At some point we are going to have to find a way to develop good, coherent, and consistent information from our observations to help society make the correct moves. Terrestrial sinks aside, CO2 and other GHGs are increasing rapidly in the atmosphere because of human emissions, primarily from use of fossil fuels. Globally, society is increasingly making decisions to reduce GHG emissions, and it is likely these initiatives will be strengthened over time. Some nations have already gone down this path. Though the U.S. has no national plan at this time, we already have a lot of regional decisions that have been made. California, for example, has a law (AB 32) and New England has the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which are looking at ways to reduce GHG emissions. These are small efforts, but with the increasing impacts of climate change over time, I do believe that efforts will strengthen significantly and, at that time, information will be demanded immediately. We need to have it ready. It’s unfortunate that it is so difficult for humans to look far into the future. But, we evolved on this planet by our ability to put food on the table (or rock?) everyday, so to speak, and so thinking years ahead wasn’t built into our survival. Today, it’s something we have to work at to be able to do.
Anyway, there is going to be demand for reducing GHGs. We want to be able to say, for example, “Governor Brown, your GHG management approach seems to be working from what we see in the atmosphere. From our measurements, however, we can see that your transportation sector efforts don’t seem to be delivering as well as the energy sector at this point.” We would not be regulating here, just providing helpful information because society will not want to spend time and money doing something that isn’t getting results. And doing it wrong could be very costly.
That is a big task, so I think the leadership challenge for us is to make sure these information systems (because someone is going to offer them up) are, first and foremost, accurate and coherent; and second, that the systems are developed in such a way that they will provide useful information. We will do this internationally and nationally. We work with other U.S. agencies through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and internationally through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), United Nations Environmental Programme, and other such organizations. We need to continue to take leadership roles everywhere and we will continue to earn respect by providing the best possible data. I am now engaging internationally in a plan called the International Greenhouse Gas Information System (IGHGIS). I’ll be at the WMO at the end of June at their Executive Council meeting working on this.
JC comments: Here are some take home points:
- Thereare very substantial efforts underway to measure variations in atmospheric composition.
- Integrating data with models is pretty much unavoidable if you want to actually derive information from the data.
- Our current observing system is not up the challenges of closing the gap in understanding the carbon budget or in monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of various mitigation activities