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Earth monitoring: Cinderella science


This year marks not only the release of a clarion IPCC report and the convening of an enormous UN climate conference, but also the 50th anniversary of the Keeling curve — the longest continuous recording of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, revealing a gradually rising carbon dioxide profile that helped trigger early concern about global warming. As part of this week’s Earth Observation special (subscription required), Nature has a commentary by Euan Nisbet, atmospheric scientist at Royal Holloway, on the Keeling curve — which “ranks very high indeed among the achievements of twentieth-century science”, he says — and similar studies in the field of Earth monitoring. Nisbet writes:

Monitoring is science’s Cinderella, unloved and poorly paid. Sustaining a long-term, ground-based programme that demands high analytical standards remains challenging. Funding agencies are seduced either by ‘pure’ notions of basic science as hypothesis-testing, or by the satanic mills of commercial reward. Neither motive fosters ‘dull’ monitoring because meeting severe analytical demands is not seen as a worthwhile investment. At one stage, Keeling was ordered to guarantee two discoveries per year and today, modern research has become a planned journey through set ‘milestones’ to deliverable destinations.

What do you think — how important is this ‘Cinderella science’ to ongoing climate research and policy, and how could we secure reliable long-term support?

Image credit: Global Warming Art

Anna Barnett


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    Mauri Pelto said:

    This is the critical ground truth we need. Through the 1980’s and 1990’s we saw a deterioration in many key long term monitoring programs, the best example being the reduction in the number of USGS gaging stations. In recent years there has been a push back to increase such networks as SNOTEL and the gaging stations. We can see how hard it is to construct long term records on sea level rise, because tide gage records were seldom continuous. Monitoring is as important I believe than expanding the horizons of research. The data sets gained are key to the expansion of knowledge as well. I monitor the mass balance of more glaciers than any other program in North America and have done so for 25 years without any federal money. This was key from the start, I was correctly informed that the federal govt was not interested in funding long term monitoring. As a result I sought alternative means to funding the research, that was sustainable, but also forced the use of cost efficient techniques. Both have been the key to maintaining the extensive annual fieldwork program that is required to measured and report glacier mass balance.

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    mustafa khan said:

    It is absolutely vital to support ground level survey works as they form the basis for modeling the earths processes. For example the biggest lacuna in todays global climate models arises because not enough ground work has been done in the tropics, south asia being one of them. Neither the carbon stock of different land use types is clear nor is the co2 flux data. Much of our predictive power and climate change mitigation strategies depends on supporting the Cinderella science of monitoring.

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    Mark Stewart said:

    As a modeler of hydrologic systems, I recognize that high-quality, long-term records are of fundemental importance to earth systems science in general, and global climate change studies in particular. Statistically-meaningful trends cannot be separated from natural variation without sufficiently long records with small uncertainties. There are many variables in hydrologic and climatic models which can only be estimated through calibration against a valid, and long period, data set. Even the most mathematically sophisticated model will be a poor predictor of future trends and values without realistic estimates of the principal physical constants obtained through history matching.

    Unfortunately, it can be difficult to predict which datasets will become more important in the future, and shortsighted budget cuts or trade offs can make some future predictions more difficult. An unfortunate example mentioned in the comment by M Pelto above is the decrease in the number of stream gaging stations maintained in the US. Something as commonplace as valid flood forecasting is very difficult without at least 20-30 years of streamflow and climatic data. Estimating and predicting future hydrologic and climatic changes cannot be done if we do not know the recent past well enough. For example, the principal arguments as to whether or not Atlantic Basin tropical cyclones are becoming stronger or more numerous as a result of global warming revolve around the quality and nature of the datasets prior to the era of satellite monitoring. With apologies to my high-energy physics colleagues and to NASA, basic natural systems monitoring is much less expensive than high-energy colliders, fusion reactor research or manned Mars missions, but will help to provide better understanding of the lesser known parts of climate and hydrologic systems (aerosols, clouds, large-scale climate connections, S. Hemisphere data, etc). Unfortunately, no one is likely to get tenured or awarded large grants by proposing a long-term monitoring study. Our thanks to Keeling, Pelto and others for persevering.

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