The Department of Energy's (DOE) Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories, together with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have joined together to address the increasing need to monitor and analyze the emission of greenhouse gases around the world. Program leaders from the multi-lab team—affectionately known as the "gang of four"—envision a network of sensors to measure the greenhouse gas emissions, and computers to calculate how the emitted gases will move about. The resulting greenhouse gas information system, or GHGIS, would enable policymakers to verify compliance with international treaties aimed at controlling emissions. GHGIS data could also support future carbon control initiatives, such as cap-and-trade.
Sounds good, but the gang faces a number of obstacles before the system becomes a reality. For one, the measurements themselves must be very sophisticated. Normal fluctuations in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide—the primary greenhouse gas—from natural sources exceeds the amount discharged by human activity by a factor of 20, so properly identifying who, if anyone, is responsible for the emissions is far from simple. Then there's the hardware involved: the sensor platforms will need to include instrumentation in the air, land, sea, and space—all of which must be integrated to yield a single coherent picture.
In order to credibly attribute the measured emissions to their sources, data will need to be combined and reconciled with reported fossil fuel use. Fuel inventory figures for electrical power production and transportation will be blended with various energy use and economic data. All this data, both measured and reported, will be fed into a computer model for analysis, and any attributable emissions will require an associated estimate of their uncertainties. (The sources of those uncertainties may range from direct measurement errors to optimistically massaged economic figures.) Finally, the model will have to account for all the factors that influence the movement of greenhouse gases, such as ocean transport, agricultural activity, and the background carbon cycle.
It should be possible to overcome all of these challenges, but doing so will require the cooperation of a wide range of institutions and agencies, including government and private sector. The gang of four has already completed its first objective, defining the requirements of the system and figuring out what will be needed in order to meet those requirements, and has recruited three more DOE laboratories to participate: the Oak Ridge, Lawrence Berkeley, and Pacific Northwest national laboratories. One day, this broad collaboration expects to produce a periodic report that quantifies greenhouse gas emissions and identifies their sources on a world map.
But won't that day be delayed by the logistical challenges associated with collaborating between seven national laboratories? Karl Jonietz, head of the GHGIS project at Los Alamos, doesn't think so. "For a program this far-reaching, we need all these laboratories to work together," he says. "No one lab could do it in the time required."