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U.S. Carbon Cycle Science  Program
Updated 1 December, 2003

Research and Current Activities
Enhancing Capabilities to Measure and Monitor GHG Emissions


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November 2003

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(c)Colin Anderson/CORBIS
Satellite Transmission to the World, (c)Colin Anderson/CORBIS
NASA satellites with new and improved sensors will be mounted in Earth observing satellites to provide valuable data on GHGs that can improve understanding of their impacts on climate change.

A wide array of GHG sensors, measurement platforms, monitoring and inventorying systems, and inference methods will likely be needed to meet basic GHG emissions measurement requirements of the future. Measurement systems must be developed that can establish baselines and measure carbon storage and GHG fluxes on various scales, from individual projects to large geographic areas. Improved measurement and monitoring technologies and capabilities can also inform the state of climate science and help to identify and guide future opportunities for technology development.

Measuring and monitoring of GHG emissions is an example of the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) and the Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP) working together. Many of the baseline measurements, observations and sensing systems used to advance our understanding of climate change science are being developed as part of the CCSP. The CCTP efforts are focused primarily on measuring and monitoring the applications and performance of various climate change technologies, such as in terrestrial (soils and agriculture) and geologic sequestration. The coupling of both Programs presents new opportunities to measure and monitor GHG emissions and to better understand the roles of various technologies in affecting GHG inventories and flows.

Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy(LIBS)

Los Alamos National Laboratory

LIBS: Carbon Measurement Technology, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Under the Applied Terrestrial Sequestration Partnership, USDA, DOE and NETL are working to improve measuring and monitoring of GHG emissions and changes in soil carbon. Supported by all three agencies and NASA, LIBS is a breakthrough carbon measurement technology. Its ability to quickly and cost effectively measure carbon in soils will be key to the monitoring of terrestrial sequestration projects.

With support from NASA, USDA and DOE, LIBS is one of the longer-running success stories of Federally funded R&D. In July 2003, researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory received an unprecedented 4th R&D 100 Award for a novel LIBS application called CARISS (Compositional Analysis by Raman-Integrated Spark Spectroscopy). This application is the only field-deployable instrument that can fit into a briefcase and provide a complete chemical analysis of a material, including soil carbon, at various depths. With this breakthrough, the time and cost of soil carbon measurements has been reduced by at least a factor of 100. Kansas State University will soon lead the testing protocol validation of LIBS for soil carbon measurement, which will be instrumental in facilitating its rapid commercialization.


USDA is developing a new network of 30 sites for measuring the effects of environmental conditions and agricultural management decisions on carbon exchange between the land and the atmosphere. Studies will identify crop management practices to optimize crop yield, crop quality, and carbon sequestration and carbon dioxide concentrations and other environmental conditions expected in the 21st century. Research will lead to new ways for prediction and early detection of drought in agricultural systems based on weekly and monthly climate forecasts.


Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Ameriflux tower
Ameriflux towers such as the one pictured above are taking long-term measurements of CO2 and water vapor fluxes in 15 sites throughout the world, including the U.S. Data gathered from these measurement sites are important to understand interactions between the atmospheric and terrestrial systems.

AmeriFlux is a research network used in collecting, synthesizing, and disseminating long-term measurements of CO2, water, and energy exchange for a variety of terrestrial landscapes across the United States. There are about 75 AmeriFlux sites, and roughly half of them have been operational 5 years or longer; a few sites have data records of 10 years or longer. The AmeriFlux network is lead by DOE with joint support from other agencies (NASA, NOAA, USDA, NSF, USGS). The network produces two important greenhouse gas data products: (i) spatial and time-series information on atmospheric concentration of CO2 and water vapor (key greenhouse gases), and (ii) the net exchange of CO2 between the atmosphere and biosphere, which is important for estimating terrestrial carbon sequestration. AmeriFlux data products are important for constraining models that simulate quantitatively the exchange of CO2 between the atmosphere and terrestrial biosphere.

The AmeriFlux network is part of an international scientific program of flux measurement networks (e.g., AmeriFlux, FLUXNET-Canada, CarboEurope, AsiaFlux) that seeks to better understand the terrestrial carbon cycle. The overall network (i.e., FLUXNET) provides unique and coordinated data for understanding the role of the terrestrial biosphere as a source or sink of CO2 in the atmosphere, and for estimating worldwide potentials of terrestrial carbon sequestration.

Remote Sensing

Computer Art Image of Satellite, (c)Royalty-Free/CORBIS
Satellites provide valuable data on CO2, aerosols, water clouds, and methane.

Remote sensing is the science of acquiring information about the Earth's surface without actually being in contact with it. Remote sensing provides data critical to weather prediction, agricultural forecasting, resource exploration, and environmental monitoring. Under development at NASA, new and improved sensors will be mounted in Earth observing satellites. This new family of sensing technologies includes infrared, optical and infrared spectrometry, laser, light detection and ranging, and radar. Additionally, computing power capable of handling large amounts of technology is being applied to meet the challenges of data analysis and intrepretation. NASA has 18 current satellites carrying over 80 sensors on-orbit, with detailed plans for deploying scores of additional sensors on 12 satellites over the next 10+ years.

NOAA is undertaking monitoring program improvements, including a regional/continental scale pilot program using aircraft and an onboard sampling system. The initiative focuses on improving carbon dioxide monitoring over continents, which requires vertical profile measurements to obtain data representative of regional scale (e.g., 1000 km). The pilot program will cover North America in the first few years, expanding to a full global operational capability over several years. The near-term elements of the initiative are completion of a network of 36 atmospheric vertical profiling stations utilizing aircraft and tall towers in North America; extension of the global network capability (at a sparser sampling distribution); sustaining current CO2 flux towers in representative U.S. ecosystems; conducting research and development to operationalize satellite retrievals of carbon dioxide from existing satellite data streams; and developing operational capability to assimilate carbon data into numerical weather models.

Integrated Earth Observations

Photo by U.S. Department of Energy

Hierarchical system of measuring and monitoring tools

In conjunction with the Climate Change Science Program, the CCTP will enable a hierarchical system of measuring and monitoring tools, including sensors deployed on satellites and aircraft, observations from ground networks, point-source sensors, and in situ stations

U.S. Federal agencies observe the Earth across a hierarchy of spatial scales on their own as well as in partnership with other agencies, commercial endeavors, and international entities.

Earth observation technologies enable measuring and monitoring systems that observe and account for the quantities and fluxes of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere, including CO2, CH4, NO2, HFCs, PFCs, SF6, O3, ozone precursors, and aerosols and black carbon. Of equal importance, these technologies enable systems that observe and account for the sequestration of CO2, including approaches for long-term holding atmospheric carbon in the oceans, on the land and underground. The global and long-term nature of the challenge requires observations across spatial scales from local to global, and across temporal scales from instantaneous monitoring of point sources and sinks to decadal monitoring of atmospheric composition and carbon sequestration.

Inventories of Specific Source Categories

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just completed a round of intensive inventory improvements for specific source categories, particularly for industrial and agricultural sources with high-global-warming-potential. Previous efforts have addressed tailpipe testing for NO2 from mobile sources and collection of more detailed data for landfill and wastewater emissions. Currently, the EPA is improving greenhouse gas inventories and emissions estimation methods for all source categories. The EPA is addressing methodological and data needs for methane from livestock and manure, methane from iron and steel industries, and carbon dioxide from cement, lime, and gypsum production. The EPA is also paying particular attention to improving methods dealing with manure application and nitrogen content for soil carbon, emissions data for rice, landfill models, and sludge for agricultural soils. The EPA is developing complex emission models by enhancing the DayCent and Century models for estimating NO2 and CO2 from agricultural soils.



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