Getting to know our planet

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

We know that our planet is heating up. And we know that international
climate negotiations like the ones that are winding down in Bali this
week are critical steps towards a global action plan to reduce
heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But how will we be able to gauge if
such a plan actually works?

In spite of all we have learned about our climate and our planet’s
natural systems over the past two decades, relatively big holes exist
in our capacity to monitor where exactly global greenhouse gases are
coming from and where they are going. That’s going to have to change in
the coming years, because we can no longer afford to leave such
important measures to guesswork.

It may be hard for many of us to remember a time when global
information was not readily available at our fingertips, but the
amazing ability to access such vast amounts of data is a relatively
recent phenomenon. Today, with supercomputers and the internet, we can
now share, combine, calculate and analyze information like never
before. For a simple example, think about the software program Google
Earth. The capacity for anyone with a computer to see the entire planet
in one instance, and then zoom down to view a close-up of virtually
anywhere on the globe is simply astounding.

Still, even with all this data available, we need much more. The
earth is incredibly complex. To be able to understand how it works,
even in a basic sense, requires vast amounts of information to be
acquired and monitored over time. Living sustainably within the
planet’s limits will require that we really get to know Earth in the
most intimate of details.

Recently, a special edition of the journal Nature looked at this
issue and how well we are doing in monitoring the planet. The results
are mixed. Huge strides forward have been achieved in some areas, while
others limp along with sporadic funding or political changes that may
stop projects entirely.

One of the most obvious measurements that must be tracked over time
is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the principle
greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide is a key mechanism in global warming.
But critical questions remain. Half of the carbon dioxide we put into
the atmosphere gets soaked up again. Where it goes is the subject of
much debate. Some say the oceans; others say soils or plants. The
reality is, we don’t know for sure.

Two satellites, to be launched in the next year should help us get a
better understanding of what’s going on. One, called the Orbiting
Carbon Observatory, will circle the earth measuring carbon dioxide
levels a half-million times every day. This information will be
combined with models of how our atmosphere circulates to give us a
better understanding of how the earth absorbs carbon dioxide. Another
project is called the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite. It will
measure carbon dioxide as well, but also other important greenhouse
gases such as methane, ozone and water vapour.

Many other projects are also planned or are underway that will
measure variables such as ice cover, soil moisture, urban growth and
desertification, wind speeds, ocean temperatures, phytoplankton growth
and many more. Yet for every planned project, there are budget
shortfalls, delays, political interference, international overlaps and
duplications that can result in critical gaps in data. This can be a
serious problem.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other human impacts on the planet
is of course a vital task. But measuring and accounting for these
changes is just as important. It’s the only way we’ll ever know if what
we’re doing is having an effect. Accumulating basic data sets about the
planet over long periods of time may be the scientific equivalent of
watching paint dry, but it is absolutely essential work for us to
understand and protect our complicated little world.

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