Lab leads global warming research

Boulder's NOAA lab vital to growing field of study on rising temperatures

Carbon dioxide in Earth's lower atmosphere measures out at an average of 378 parts per million.

It's a simple figure, seemingly trivial - a bit less than one part in 4,000.

But a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Boulder spends about $6

million a year to collect and test air samples from 60 global sampling sites. The lab's long-term carbon-dioxide measurements are the bedrock upon which the world's scientific models of climate change are based.

Climate models predict rising temperatures with higher carbon-dioxide concentrations, with possible consequences ranging from homeless polar bears to Western droughts to submerged Pacific islands.

NOAA's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory is largely to thank that the debate over the link between fossil-fuel combustion and global warming is at its end - at least scientifically.

"They're the only ones who have the actual facts about what's happening," said Gerald Meehl, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder who uses climate models to predict global-warming impacts. "All this research is prompted by the fact that we've seen these increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide since they started measuring in the 1950s."

NOAA measurements show that global carbon-dioxide concentrations have risen to nearly 380 ppm from about 330 parts per million in 1957, when the lab installed the world's first long-term carbon-dioxide sampler at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Before the industrial revolution, the ratio was about 280 ppm.

If today's global average of 378 ppm doubled to about 750 ppm by the end of the century, temperatures could rise an average of 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit, according to recent research based on the NCAR's best climate model. Certain areas - particularly in the polar regions - would see increases of up to 18 degrees, enough to melt a lot of ice.

With global warming a heated topic at the highest levels of international politics, carbon-dioxide measurement has been a growth business. The lab's Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases Group has roughly doubled in size since 2002, to about 25 scientists and engineers.

The group continues to process 18,000 hockey-tape-wrapped glass bottles each year. The roughly two-liter containers go out in pairs, to the Azores, to Alaska, to the South Pole, to Kazakhstan in diplomatic pouches, to a commercial ship lugging cars from Japan to New Zealand and mutton back.

Tim Ikenouye, a University of Colorado senior, works in outbound shipping. He fills bottles with carefully formulated air and ships them out, in battered boxes. He envies the boxes.

"I want to go to all these places," Ikenouye said.

They find their way back over time, for automated testing in a carbon-analysis lab upstairs in the D-wing of NOAA's David Skaggs Research Center. Machines sip from eight bottles on a rotating platter. They test for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and other greenhouse gases.

They also sniff for isotopes of oxygen and carbon, which tell scientists whether the greenhouse gases came from fossil-fuel combustion or natural sources, said Russell Schnell, the climate-monitoring lab's deputy director.

The carbon group's growth is in the expansion of a network of tower- and aircraft-based sensors, mainly in the continental United States.

Karen Partak, a research associate with the CU-NOAA Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, tested one of 160 automated remote-monitoring kits for use in aircraft in a different lab. The kits consist of two Samsonite-size hard-plastic cases, one for the pump and another for an array of plastic bottles. She held out an electronic display screen, also part of the package.

"It tells the pilots how high to fly," she said.

NOAA will double its monitoring-aircraft count to 23 in 2007. The lab will also put greenhouse-gas monitoring equipment on 11 broadcast towers as tall as 2,000 feet high, up from two towers today.

The goal is to more precisely understand how the continental United States creates and absorbs greenhouse gases. Such knowledge could be a vital input to possible future international carbon-trading regimes, Schnell said.