The steady rise in atmospheric long-lived greenhouse gas concentrations is the main driver of contemporary climate change. The Mauna Loa CO2 time series (1, 2), started by C. D. Keeling in 1958 and maintained today by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) of NOAA, is iconic evidence of the effect of human-caused fossil fuel and land-use change emissions on the atmospheric increase of CO2. The continuity of such records depends critically on having stable funding, which is challenging to maintain in the context of 3- to 4-year research grant funding cycles (3), and is currently threatened by the financial crisis.
The ESRL Global Monitoring Division maintains a network of about 100 surface and aircraft sites worldwide at which whole air samples are collected approximately every week for analysis of CO2, CH4, CO, halocarbons, and many other chemical species (4). This is complemented by high-frequency measurements at the Mauna Loa, Barrow, American Samoa, and South Pole observatories, and about 10 North American tall towers. The success of the NOAA program has inspired similar efforts in Europe (5), China (6), India (7), and Brazil (8), with the United Nations World Meteorological Organization providing guidance and precision requirements through the Global Atmosphere Watch program (9), but no funding.
The data collected by NOAA and its worldwide partners have been used not only to demonstrate the unassailable rise of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, but also to infer the magnitudes, locations, and times of surface-atmosphere exchange of those gases based on small concentration gradients between sites (10). Important findings from analysis of these records include the detection of a significant terrestrial carbon sink at northern mid-latitudes (11) and subsequent research aimed at identifying the mechanisms by which that sink must operate. Long-term, high-quality, atmospheric measurements are crucial for quantifying trends in greenhouse gas fluxes and attributing them to fossil fuel emissions, changes in land-use and management, or the response of natural land and ocean ecosystems to climate change and elevated CO2 concentrations.
Greenhouse gas measurements along tall towers in the interior continents allow quantification of regional sources and sinks, which has a very high relevance for measuring the effectiveness of climate policy. NOAA ESRL provides measurements that are critical for the U.S. national security in that they provide independent verification and early warning of changing greenhouse gas emissions from countries involved in efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases.
Dedicated carbon-observing satellites such as GOSAT and OCO-2 are needed to fill in the missing geographical information required for verification of carbon flux mitigation efforts. However, satellite retrievals do not yet provide sufficient information to deliver new constraints on surface fluxes, although quick progress is being made in this direction. In situ observations are crucial for anchoring space-borne measurements, for detecting potential biases of remote sensing techniques, and for providing continuity given the finite lifetime of satellites.
Despite the growing importance of greenhouse gas observations to humanity, substantial budget cuts at NOAA have resulted in curtailment of our ability to observe and understand changes to the global carbon cycle. Already, a dozen surface flask-sampling sites have been removed from NOAA's operational network and aircraft profiling sites have been eliminated and reduced in frequency at the remaining NOAA sites. The planned growth in the tall tower program has stopped, and plans for closing some towers are being developed. The U.S. budget process in this election year, with the added risk of mandatory across-the-board cuts due to the 2011 Budget Control Act, foretells more bleak news for greenhouse gas monitoring at NOAA and could cause further retreat from the goal of recording ongoing changes in atmospheric composition. As scientists, we believe that preserving the continuity of these vital time series must remain a priority for U.S. carbon cycle research.