One of the world's most comprehensive climate databases is a key tool for researchers.
The tower sits atop Chestnut Ridge, offering fabulous views of the East Tennessee mountains and quietly collecting data that are contributing to scientists' view of the future. For every vivid image of hurricanes, drought-cracked lake beds, melting icecaps and coal-fired power plants, there are trillions upon trillions of data points measuring and documenting Earth's vital signs: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, solar radiation, cloud formation, plant growth, precipitation and temperature. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the repository for a growing inventory of key data that documents the past and present and hints toward the future.
The tower on Chestnut Ridge, for example, is part of the AmeriFlux project, a network of more than 100 towers that measures the movement of carbon, water vapor and radiation into and out of terrestrial ecosystems—forest and vegetation on land and in freshwater streams and lakes. (See Towers of Knowledge article) ORNL also serves as a repository for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program, a Department of Energy project that collects real-time data on, in its simplest terms, clouds and sunshine—important for understanding how climate change may affect or be affecting weather. ORNL manages one of nine NASA Distributed Active Archive Centers, this one a repository of field research data that serves as "ground truth" for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's satellite measurements of conditions such as fire damage, leaf cover, carbon flux, snow melts and the amount of sunlight absorbed or reflected by a forest or a field of grass.
"We are the only lab for the Department of Energy with major holdings of climatic change data," says Gary Jacobs, who heads up ORNL's environmental sciences research. "We house several archives that promote active research collaboration among the scientific community."
Tom Boden manages the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, or CDIAC, a data collection built in part through passive instruments taking record of existing conditions as well as through manipulated experiments in the environment, such as the Free-Air CO2 Enrichment experiment (see Testing Nature article), which pumps carbon dioxide directly onto forest plots. Boden stresses the ORNL archives do much more than simply archive and disseminate data. Documenting, validating and enhancing incoming data streams are essential elements of CDIAC data management. Even with all the data streams coming into CDIAC, gaps persist, impeding some modeling efforts. ORNL scientists work with the climate-change community to develop proper modeling and statistical techniques to fill those gaps.
Among climate change circles, CDIAC holds some particularly well-known and unique data sets. CDIAC houses the legendary Mauna Loa record, carbon dioxide measurements initiated nearly 50 years ago atop the Hawaii volcano that first demonstrated rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. The CDIAC data collection includes information derived from the ice cores drilled at Vostok, Antarctica, characterizing the nature of climate and climate feedbacks over the past 420,000 years. CDIAC stores rare climate records from China, dating back centuries. One of CDIAC's most popular and contemporary databases, annual releases of CO2 from fossil fuel burning and cement production worldwide, is built in-house and draws largely on the work of ORNL researcher Gregg Marland and reports provided by the United Nations on international trade and economic activity taking place around the world. These emission estimates were the background for Marland's recently publicized prediction that China will pass the United States this year in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in power plants and transportation vehicles.
Boden says over the past 20 years ORNL's databases have gone from being a resource used by a relatively small group of scientists, to an electronically managed archive that responds to information queries from a broad base of people. "We get questions from everyone—premier climate change researchers, congressional staffers and just the general public," he says. "When I first came to ORNL, if we had 500 to 1,000 requests a year we considered the volume heavy. Then, our requests came by mail and phone. Now more than 99% of the requests are direct downloads from our servers and websites. We have 350,000 requests a year—and that number is growing."
ORNL's archives are helping scientists understand the most basic atmospheric and terrestrial cycles and, therefore, how Earth might respond as nature turns up the heat. Take clouds, says Raymond McCord, manager of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement archive, or ARM. When he began working with the database more than a decade ago, McCord says, "as an ecologist, I thought, okay, we all know how clouds form. But there is a lot scientists did not and do not understand about the interaction of sunlight with water in its various states. This understanding is very important when we think about how higher temperatures could affect the cycles of evaporation, condensation and rainfall—in other words, our weather."
Using instruments stationed around the world, scientists can observe on a minute-by-minute basis the interaction of water in its three forms—vapor, droplets and ice crystals—with radiation as well as the temperature and wind profiles that influence weather patterns. With almost 15 years of detailed and continuous data now collected, McCord says ARM is working with climate modelers to feed the information into high-performance computational models that will help predict how future climate change could alter the world's weather.
"There is beginning to be enough data to enable climate modelers to identify revised parameters for their current assumptions," he says. "The intersection of our data collections, model development and computational resources will provide us many new scientific methods for climate modeling in the future. ORNL has significant capabilities in data management, modeling and supercomputer implementation that should enable new discoveries in climate change research."
In addition to the wealth of historical data housed in ORNL's archives, researchers are also launching new projects to help catalog the world's natural phenomena. One such project is the USA National Phenology Network, a partnership of multiple government agencies and research institutions being set up to study the annual cycles of plants and animals. The project includes recording observations of budding, birth, migration, growth and other visible, physical characteristics of life on planet Earth.
"Such information is highly interrelated with climate change," says Bruce Wilson, who is leading the development of cyberinfrastructure for the archive. "For instance, earlier leafing due to global warming combined with drought can create conditions more vulnerable to forest fires, which in turn can affect the climate."
Because phenology is everywhere, the U.S. National Phenology Network is attempting to complement the data from towers and modern instruments by using the power of everyday Americans' observations of the environment. Some tools already exist to allow people to observe and submit phenology measurements on native plants in their regions, such as the common lilac. The program is also working to expand the types of observations that citizen scientists can contribute, going beyond plants to insects, animals and birds, as well as providing standardized cultivars of indicator plants to make observations more comparable across the nation. This is the first time in America, Wilson says, that there has been a coordinated, standardized effort to gather such data, although similar networks have been long established in European countries.
"Using citizen scientists is an excellent way to get the wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast data that will help provide a big picture of how climate change may be affecting a variety of ecosystems across the country," he says. He is working to complete the first phase of cyberinfrastructure for the project in time to catch the 2008 growing season, with further expansion to continue beyond that—dependent, of course, on funding.Such partnerships among large groups of organizations and people are "how much of science will get done in the future," Wilson says. "This is an exciting story."—Larisa Brass
Contact: Tom Boden
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations