Back to the Greenhouse Gas Future: A Conversation with Jim Butler, Director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division
According to their website, the Global Monitoring Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory (NOAA/ESRL/GMD) “conducts sustained observations and research related to source and sink strengths, trends, and global distributions of atmospheric constituents that are capable of forcing change in the climate of Earth through modification of the atmospheric radiative environment, those that may cause depletion of the global ozone layer, and those that affect baseline air quality."
Few scientific meetings match the level of organization and attendee engagement as does this Global Monitoring Annual Conference (GMAC). This past May, GMD celebrated its 40th year of these meetings in Boulder, CO. One thing many people may not know about this year’s meeting is that it was funded entirely by private donations, which were primarily from individuals. In the following article, Picarro’s greenhouse gas product manager, Gloria Jacobson, checks in with GMD director, Jim Butler, after the event.
Gloria Jacobson (GJ): This year’s 40th GMAC was the best attended annual GMD meeting so far, with 126 presentations and many great discussions. What was the highlight of the meeting for you?
Jim Butler (JB): There were highlights on many levels. One of the most distinguishing highlights for me relates to a comment I got from many participants who said attending this meeting “feels like coming home again.” It think this is a testament to the fact that we are able to create a constructive environment for scientists who are interested in getting the best possible observations and learning the most from them. Everyone feels safe to reveal new data or information without the fear that someone else will run away with it. We also take a great deal of pride in the level of engagement and cooperation we achieve with others in producing publications and developing data sets. We’re a small community, thus a “family” of sorts.
As for scientific highlights, there were so many good presentations, it feels like cheating to single one out; however, one important concept was emphasized by our two keynote speakers, Steve Wofsy (Harvard) and Ron Prinn (MIT). Both spoke of what it took to derive information from observations. Everyone knows we need more observations and we need to coordinate those observations. Everybody knows we need to do better ensemble reanalysis with multiple land models, and we need global-scale transport models that can be resolved to within, say, 10 km, and we need computing capacity to handle all that. The two keynote speakers were able to put all those things together.
Wofsy focused on how we can merge different types of observations. Using results of several years of HIAPER Pole-to-Pole (HIPPO) missions and comparing those to our ground-based networks, he showed what you can miss if you are only measuring on the ground or only measuring in the air. If you can connect systems of ground-based and mid-tropospheric observations, you can get a coherent set of measurements that can be useful for initiating and validating satellite retrievals and informing model development. The result is that you get much more than either set of measurements would offer alone. Ron Prinn added to this concept by demonstrating what is needed to develop a useful and relevant inversion model that translates the data into information. He also made the point that we can move the models further forward by incorporating socio-economics. Ultimately it will take high-quality physical, chemical, and socioeconomic data for inversion models to provide the information society demands. So, I think that, together, those two speakers captured the essence of where we need to go with observations and models.
GJ: The last 40 years of science and technology has seen decoding of the human genome, extensive proliferation of the Internet, and the detection of extra-solar planets. What has been the most significant step change in your field in the last 40 years?
JB: Discovery of the “Ozone Hole” was a big one. Stratospheric ozone-depletion posed a serious, world-wide environmental threat. Increasing ultraviolet radiation resulting from ozone depletion had potentially serious impacts on agriculture, ecosystems, and human health. It gave rise to a huge research effort, international agreements, and ultimately a successful path forward. It remains a threat, as these long-lived, ozone-depleting gases (chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) take a long time for the atmosphere to remove, and we’re still not certain of what the future has in store for us, for example, the effects of climate change on ozone depletion. But it’s going in the right direction and we, as a community, continue to watch and study and engage with policy makers by making observations, publishing our research, and providing periodic assessments of ozone depletion.
But I’d like to focus right now on the greenhouse gases (GHGs), which, as the cause of climate change, are the big threat for the future. I have this plot I like to show that depicts what our observing system looked like in the 1970s, when we were concerned primarily with global trends, compared to how it looked in subsequent decades. The observing system had to grow as questions evolved and issues around them became more complex.
You see, based on what we saw in the global trends during the ‘70s, we needed to know more about distributions, because there was variability in those trends that we did not understand. As a result, we set up sites on islands throughout the oceans and on the edges of continents where air masses came in from the ocean. Once we had that, we had a fairly robust picture that improved our understanding of trends, but also began to hint at distributions of sources and sinks. Because of this, and because we had begun measuring isotopes of carbon, like 13C from CO2, our scientists here were able to do much more. By combining data for CO2 and 13CO2 it became clear there was a very large, previously unidentified sink for atmospheric CO2 in the Northern Hemisphere.
Further, by including these atmospheric data with a compilation of data of ocean surface CO2 saturations from Taro Takahashi at LDEO into a model by Inez Fung (then at NASA, now at Berkeley), Pieter Tans (NOAA GMD and CIRES), Takahashi, and Fung were able to state unequivocally that the unidentified sink was terrestrial in origin, not oceanic (Science, Vol. 247 no. 4949 pp. 1431-1438 Observational Contrains on the Global Atmospheric CO2 Budget, 1990). That finding was revolutionary, as it identified a significant area of needed research. The U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program (CCSP) took off from there with a number of scientists from around the country who worked together to develop the North American Carbon Program (NACP). Much of today’s research around CO2 and other GHGs revolves around what came out of that.
GJ: What do you think it was about the Tans, Takahashi, and Fung paper that really incited people’s curiosity?
JB: Well, for one, it was based primarily on high quality data and the model was state-of-the-art, so there was almost no way to deny its main conclusions. That was a solid paper because it was based on the best information we had at the time and it admitted its weaknesses ‒ it was honest. The thing that enticed everyone is that we had no clue what was going on. It looked like possibly 20%, 25%, or maybe even 30% of the carbon in the atmosphere was being taken up by the land, when all the time we knew that people had been deforesting, so how was this possible? We had previously thought of forests as being in carbon balance. Trees grow and take up CO2 and trees fall, decay, and emit CO2. Everyone had a lot of ideas, but we really didn’t know. In order to understand, we had to do the studies.
Ultimately, this kicked up modeling efforts. It kicked up a lot of measurement efforts, forest inventories, and soil inventories to understand how this sink was distributed across the planet. A few years ago, carbon cycle scientists in the U.S. released a synthesis and assessment report that compared bottom-up inventories with NOAA’s top-down inversion, Carbon Tracker, which was based on atmospheric measurements. You learn about the individual pieces by doing bottom-up work, but ultimately, the sum of the parts, which has high uncertainty, must be validated with high quality, atmospheric observations. We have learned a lot within these past years of research, yet we still don’t fully understand how the terrestrial biosphere is going to respond to climate change.
GJ: Atmospheric scientists and other researchers measuring GHGs in the U.S. and globally look to NOAA and ESRL GMD as a leader. Over the next few years, what are the major leadership challenges your team will face and how do you envision overcoming them?
JB: I would say there are several levels of leadership that are needed. At some point we are going to have to find a way to develop good, coherent, and consistent information from our observations to help society make the correct moves. Terrestrial sinks aside, CO2 and other GHGs are increasing rapidly in the atmosphere because of human emissions, primarily from use of fossil fuels. Globally, society is increasingly making decisions to reduce GHG emissions, and it is likely these initiatives will be strengthened over time. Some nations have already gone down this path. Though the U.S. has no national plan at this time, we already have a lot of regional decisions that have been made. California, for example, has a law (AB 32) and New England has the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which are looking at ways to reduce GHG emissions. These are small efforts, but with the increasing impacts of climate change over time, I do believe that efforts will strengthen significantly and, at that time, information will be demanded immediately. We need to have it ready. It’s unfortunate that it is so difficult for humans to look far into the future. But, we evolved on this planet by our ability to put food on the table (or rock?) everyday, so to speak, and so thinking years ahead wasn’t built into our survival. Today, it’s something we have to work at to be able to do.
Anyway, there is going to be demand for reducing GHGs. We want to be able to say, for example, “Governor Brown, your GHG management approach seems to be working from what we see in the atmosphere. From our measurements, however, we can see that your transportation sector efforts don’t seem to be delivering as well as the energy sector at this point.” We would not be regulating here, just providing helpful information because society will not want to spend time and money doing something that isn’t getting results. And doing it wrong could be very costly.
That is a big task, so I think the leadership challenge for us is to make sure these information systems (because someone is going to offer them up) are, first and foremost, accurate and coherent; and second, that the systems are developed in such a way that they will provide useful information. We will do this internationally and nationally. We work with other U.S. agencies through the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and internationally through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), United Nations Environmental Programme, and other such organizations. We need to continue to take leadership roles everywhere and we will continue to earn respect by providing the best possible data. I am now engaging internationally in a plan called the International Greenhouse Gas Information System (IGHGIS). I’ll be at the WMO at the end of June at their Executive Council meeting working on this.
GJ: There is quite a bit of educational outreach that you do and I’m thinking, for example of Science on the Sphere. I would imagine that to be a pretty important component going forward?
JB: Education is really important. Right now I would say that we scientists have failed to communicate the urgency of climate change as a whole to the public. We need more of the world to get it. This is why I like Earth Networks’ approach of getting the measurements out there. Their business plan calls for deriving funding from a variety of sources, so it’s to their benefit to get the word out about GHGs, and it doesn’t take much. If they could find a way, for example, to provide a weekly or bi-weekly report on the local news channel, just a 30-second blip on what’s happening this week, it will help keep GHGs in the public mind. This is something that will catch people’s attention because it can visually show how CO2 is transported or stored in different areas. That will catch people’s attention and then they'll start to say, "Oh that’s GHG, I can see how that works." Just having people be aware of the situation will influence decisions, and that’s what’s most important. In our hearts, we physical scientists are nerds ‒ you can teach us how to communicate and we will do a better job, but we need others to help carry the message and convey the “feeling” to the public.
GJ: Forty years ago we didn’t know much about the global carbon cycle, now we know quite a bit, so now if we fast-forward 40 years, what would you like to see at the 80th annual meeting? What major questions would you like to see answered and what do you think are the next issues to conquer?
JB: I’d like to see us not needed anymore (laughs). You know, 40 years is not far off. It’s mind boggling and I think in 40 years we are going to see a lot of changes. The issues that we will be dealing with in the future will have a lot to do with population and climate. Even with the population leveling off at 10-11 billion, (currently, it’s 7 billion; was 3 billion in 1960) we are going to have huge problems. The environmental problems we are going to run into will have to do with climate change impacts and resource use and distribution on the planet, which is a big problem even now. I don’t think we are going to solve those problems in the next 40 years because the population is still going up and there are still spurts and periods of serious contention. And there will be increasing stress on our environment from population and the many stresses that will come with climate change. They should be in full force by then.
So how does this play into GMD? It means there are some things we are going to have to watch for a very long time. For what it’s worth, the “hole” in the ozone will still be there 40 years from now, it will be quite a bit smaller, but it won't be gone. And mid-tropospheric ozone will not have fully recovered. We will not have reached the pre-1980 levels of ozone-depleting chlorine; some excess will still be there in 40 years. That’s a good reminder of what can happen with CO2 emissions, though it will be much longer. My guess is that by that time, we will be on more sustainable energy patterns, but the planet will be continuing to heat because of all the CO2 we will already have added to the atmosphere. And it will continue to heat for some time after emissions stop.
If society acts quickly, in 40 years we might be over that hump and on the route to recovery, but right now we are not on that track. Right now, atmospheric CO2 is increasing exponentially with the same rate constant as existed in the early 19th century, which means we are doubling annual CO2 emissions every 35 years. In other words, in the year 1900 we emitted about eight times as much CO2 compared to the year 1800, and in the year 2000, we emitted 64 times as much CO2 per year compared to 1800. Currently, we have 40% more CO2 in the atmosphere than was present during the entire history of human civilization, with almost all of it delivered in the past century.
At some point we will stop and turn around, but then we will be stuck with what have for quite a while. The removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is very slow, you can get about three-fourths of it out in 100 years, and then it’s about another 1,000 years to get another few percent out. This means we are going to be having a lot of issues with climate change in 40 years and well past that. Hopefully we will have better ways of dealing with it because, unfortunately, we will have seen so many impacts and effects. So we have to watch the ozone hole, and hopefully we will have that IGHGIS working and we’ll be looking at how well our emission reduction strategies are working. Who knows? We may even be celebrating how well they worked.
GJ: What is the role Picarro and other instrument companies should play in the future - what is your advice on how can we can best help the community and further the science?
JB: For one, we could use instruments that can be deployed simply on something like unmanned aerial systems. Going perhaps too far with this idea, imagine having butterfly-sized UAVs go to work on climate investigations, which can transverse between stratosphere and troposphere and send or bring back data to some network of distributed downloading stations. We may not need to go that far, but we do need smaller, cheaper, and better instruments to do the job effectively.
We direly need expansion of our observation networks and platforms. All of our models right now are hugely observationally-constrained for analysis purposes or climate prediction. So we need to kick up those observations by finding ways to get many more observations cost effectively.
I see private companies breaking through in many areas. I think we are going to get better at making things more portable and at getting high resolution. Picarro made a huge breakthrough by taking CRDS, making it work well, and making it stable, but also marketing it well. You’ve suddenly increased the market for the instruments, so we are naturally going to get more measurements. For example, a group primarily in Europe wants to fly GHG analyzers on commercial aircraft through the In-service Aircraft for Greenhouse gas Observing System (IAGOS) and some airlines already do this. This is great! We are getting the whole world engaged in making these measurements. Going to conferences and meetings, showing your stuff, and passing the message around is important in terms of getting the information out to scientists. Marketing your instrument has made a big difference. If it were left to companies who were focused only on the small group of scientists who wanted the instrument, you wouldn’t get this level of expanding interest in this issue. (That’s also why medical equipment is so expensive – a small customer base.) Also, you have scientists at Picarro who are taking part in field investigations, which is a key component because it means you understand what we scientists are talking about. We need your help to generate interest at all levels. When you go to a school, for example, kids are so interested in climate change because that is the world they are going to go grow into.
GJ: One last, surprise question for you... We heard that you used to be a lead singer in a band?
JB: A small, insignificant, short-lived band. Yeah, one of my favorite songs was from a group called “Them”, Van Morrison lead singer. There was this song I really liked to sing: “G-L-O-R-I-A”. What was your name again?
GJ: So as a singer, we want to know: Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga?
JB: Lady Gaga, absolutely!
~Interview conducted by phone on June 8, 1pm PDT