Tracking Our Carbon Footprint


Similar to how a meteorologist can visually track weather patterns using satellites, the public can now track greenhouse gas emissions using a new network of sensors.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego entered into an agreement with Germantown, Md., company Earth Networks in which Scripps scientists guide development of a network of greenhouse gas measurement devices around the United States.


During a news conference held at the Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society and the Environment (Scripps Seaside Forum) in La Jolla, Calif. on Jan. 23, 2011, officials from Scripps and Earth Networks announced that the company, owner of WeatherBug products and services, would invest $25 million over the next five years to develop and implement a new Global Greenhouse Gas Observation System. The network will initially deploy 100 global greenhouse gas observing stations worldwide, starting with 50 in the continental U.S., followed by deployments in Europe and other areas of the world. The density of the Earth Networks approach will make it possible to quantify and map more localized emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane. It will also help identify carbon “sinks,” regions that take up carbon dioxide through natural processes like photosynthesis and their changes over time.


Earth Networks is using environmental instruments from Sunnyvale, California-based Picarro. The Picarro analyzers employ a technique known as cavity ring-down spectroscopy to make precise and reliable measurements of carbon dioxide and methane. The network will reference other environmental data such as air quality, water quality, wind, and pollution. The data will be available to the research community, and to paid subscribers in government agencies and private industry. Earth Networks hopes to market the data as a tool used to independently verify reported emissions of greenhouse gases in support of international and regional climate policy initiatives.

A key element of this new collaboration is the Earth Networks Center for Climate Research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Professor Ralph Keeling and Distinguished Research Professor Ray Weiss are co-directors of the center at Scripps. They advise Earth Networks and provide staff for the center, where one of the first instruments in the network is currently in use. Keeling and Weiss also provide guidance on the network design, methods to ensure data quality, and linking the network data to atmospheric modeling experts at research institutions around the world.


“Scientists who measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere know that large discrepancies can exist between reported and actual emissions,” said Weiss. “Reporting emissions without verification by atmospheric measurements is like going on a diet without ever weighing yourself. Increased atmospheric measurements combined with improved computer modeling offer a path toward truly verifying reported emissions on national and regional scales.”


Since the news conference in January, Earth Networks has announced that it has reached a formal agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ‐ Earth System Research Laboratory (NOAA‐ESRL) to provide greenhouse gas data from the Global Observation Network for use in research and applications to advance climate science.


NOAA‐ESRL will use the data collected from this new network to complement data from its existing observation and analysis network to support the environmental research missions of the ESRL Global Monitoring Division. Also, Earth Networks will use gas calibration standards from NOAA‐ESRL to ensure compatibility with the World Meteorological Organization scales for global greenhouse gases.


“What is especially exciting about the Earth Networks initiative is the prospect of the private sector taking a leadership role in addressing this important societal problem,” said Weiss. “It is an honor to be involved on the Scripps side in assuring that the Earth Networks greenhouse gas measurement program meets the highest experimental standards.”


-- Caitlin Denham

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