Key climate change indicator can’t get federal funding

January 13th, 2014 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

One of the most important and longest-running measurements of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is  threatened with a lapse in critical federal funding, apparently because it falls through the cracks of what government bureaucrats  view as the scope of normal scientific research.

The Keeling Curve, named for its initiator Charles David Keeling, has been tracking daily carbon dioxide emissions from a monitoring station atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii since 1956, providing vital information on greenhouse gas fluctuations over time.

Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii

Keeling’s observations were the first to show how carbon dioxide concentrations rise and fall seasonally — with levels going down in spring, as plants take in carbon dioxide, and rising in the fall, when leaves fall and carbon is released. The curve has  also followed the steady climb of emissions from around 313 parts per million (ppm) in the 1950s to the 400 ppm recorded in May of 2013.

Carbon Dioxide Concentration at Mauna Loa, Hawaii

Both images above come from the website of CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has kept the curve going for many years with a mix of federal and private funding.

But now Keeling’s son, Ralph F. Keeling, who is director of the CO2 Program, has issued an unprecedented appeal, saying federal funding for the program has become more tenuous than it has ever been. In addition to measuring carbon dioxide, the program also monitors oxygen levels in the air, which Keeling says, have been falling as carbon emissions increase.

The scientific value of the Keeling curve is not in dispute, Keeling said, and while federal budget constraints may be involved, they are not the main factors, as he explains in the appeal:

“One is that measurements with global scope tend to fall between the cracks of the different federal agencies. Our measurements provide insight into land and ocean processes, and into changes in the Arctic, Antarctic, tropics, and temperate latitudes.  Ironically, it’s less challenging at present to support smaller-scale observations, such as of a forest, coral reef, or city, than to support observations with holistic planetary importance.  In reality, of course, we need both kinds of measurements.

“Another reason is that long-term observations of the environment continue to be viewed as outside the scope of normal scientific research.  After 20 or 30 years of proposals, the science agencies take the view that continued support ought to be someone else’s concern.   While the measurements gain importance with time, their longevity actually makes them harder, not easier, to support.”

How much money are we talking about? Keeling does not mention numbers in his appeal, but in  a Nov.20 article in the journal Nature, he said the program had for many years been able to operate on a combination of grants totaling around $700,000 from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. When the NSF cut its funding three years ago, Keeling made staff cuts and kept the program running on a bare-bones $350,000 per year.

And that only covers the carbon dioxide side of the program. Another $350,000 is needed to support ongoing measurement of the the earth’s oxygen levels. Again, long standing support from the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now petering out, with NOAA losing 12 percent of its budget since 2011.

On the one hand, six-figure grants don’t seem extravagant in the context of a federal budget in the trillions. But they are larger than what your standard online crowdfunding appeal can cover — Keeling tried last summer, with only modest results.

Clearly, what’s needed here are a few ongoing commitments or a large endowment from individual philanthropists or foundations that can provide Keeling the kind of  solid financial support he needs.

Or perhaps more appropriate, how about using some of California’s money from its cap and trade program?

It seems inconceivable that essential climate research of this kind will be allowed to flatline.

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