With concern growing about global warming, researchers said Wednesday they have developed a new system to track carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Being able to determine where and when this major greenhouse gas increases or decreases should help in projecting future climate change and evaluating efforts to reduce releases of carbon.
"This is a pretty exciting opportunity," said Richard Spinrad, head of research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It produces an unbiased, objective statement of carbon observations, he said, but doesn't favor any particular policy or economic model.
Tracking carbon dioxide release and absorption will improve understanding of its impact, he said, noting that one-third of the economy is weather- and climate-sensitive, ranging from agriculture to transportation to insurance and real estate.
Pieter Tans, chief scientist at NOAA's Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colo., noted that once carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, it can remain there for thousands of years. That means carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced to mitigate climate change, he said.
While carbon dioxide is a natural part of the air, it has been increasing sharply since the beginning of industrialization. It is produced in large amounts by burning fossil fuels, such as in manufacturing plants, motor vehicles and generating electricity.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , representing the leading climate scientists, reported in February that global warming has begun, is very likely caused by human activities and will be unstoppable for centuries.
Tans said the new system, called CarbonTracker , currently samples the air at 20 places in the United States and 60 worldwide, with a goal of expanding that to "hundreds, maybe thousands" of sampling points.
The plan is to be able to measure CO2 regionally to help determine where it is being released, where it is being absorbed — such as by trees and crops — and where efforts to reduce release are or are not working.
In addition, it could provide an early warning of new emissions, Tans said.
For example, there are millions of tons of carbon dioxide held in the arctic permafrost . The arctic regions are warming faster than other parts of the world and that could result in release of the carbon, he said.
"We need to pick this signal up as soon as it starts to happen," he said.
The analysis is not currently in real time, Tans said, adding that there is a lag because of the need to collect the measurements and analyze them. CarbonTracker currently includes data from 2000 to 2005, and 2006 data is being added.
In addition, Tans said, the researchers are refining their methods so they can determine the amount of an isotope called carbon-14 in the gas. That will enable them to tell the difference between carbon dioxide generated naturally and that produced by burning fossil fuels.
The system now can report on carbon dioxide emissions each month among U.S. regions, such as the West or the Southeast.
With more sampling stations researchers hope to be able to analyze local areas, for example the difference in net emissions from Sacramento as compared with San Francisco.
Tans said CarbonTracker is currently of most interest to scientists, but potential users of the information include corporations, cities, states and nations assessing their efforts to reduce or store fossil fuel emissions around the world.
Environment Canada has been a major partner in the system and NOAA said it is also working with agencies in Europe.