A USDA Forest Service worker takes measurements for the national forest carbon inventory in Alaska.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service worker takes measurements for the national forest carbon inventory in Alaska. Credit: USDA Forest Service

A U.S. climate research program has survived a near-death experience.

NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System was launched in 2010 to build the scientific capacity needed for monitoring and enforcement programs that many people believe will be necessary to address climate change. But last spring, after Congress’s 2018 budget bill did not explicitly fund the program, the Trump administration moved to quietly kill it, Science originally reported.

“The program has pushed cycle science forward in a way that was desperately needed.”

In response, both the House and Senate passed appropriations language explicitly funding the program in fiscal year 2019. That language became law when President Donald Trump signed a spending bill for NASA and other agencies on 15 February, and last Friday the agency released a new funding solicitation.

“The program has pushed carbon cycle science forward in a way that was desperately needed,” said Lucy Hutyra, an environmental scientist at Boston University. “I’m thrilled to see it continue.”

Useful Numbers

The Carbon Monitoring System, or CMS, isn’t a satellite or an instrument but a program that funds research that converts measurements of carbon dioxide and methane from existing instruments into usable information for policy makers seeking to curb global warming. The program “sits on top of the mountain of data that NASA collects,” said George Hurtt, a carbon scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park who leads the program’s science team.

Created by congressional mandate in 2010, CMS funded some 65 grants of up to $500,000 a year for 3 years before it was halted. It has had several major successes, says Hurtt. One is close to home for him: The program funded Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to build a computer model that combines tree measurements gathered by laser-equipped aircraft and on-the-ground crews to predict how much carbon the state’s forests can sequester in the future. Last fall, the state officially adopted the methodology to support its Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, which requires a 40% cut in carbon emissions by 2030.

“If they eliminated NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, it definitely would make this effort, if not impossible, much, much more difficult,” said DNR ecological economist Elliott Campbell.

A high-resolution map of biomass in Maryland
A high-resolution map of biomass in Maryland based on research funded by the Carbon Monitoring System. Credit: George Hurtt/NASA

Hurtt’s team is now extending the methodology to forests in the other eight northeastern states that have joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based effort to limit carbon emissions. He hopes to eventually provide forest carbon monitoring capabilities for other countries using data from NASA’s recently launched Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, a laser mounted on the International Space Station that will measure tropical and temperate forests around the world. But first, he said, “we got to walk the walk. If we can’t talk about carbon in our backyard, how can we talk about carbon in their backyard?”

The U.S. Forest Service is tasked with monitoring the nation’s forest carbon. Its national forest inventory is world renowned, but it has long struggled to incorporate the vast and nearly inaccessible boreal forests of interior Alaska, said Christopher Woodall, a forest scientist who led the service’s carbon research until 2016. CMS grants have enabled the service to study how laser-equipped airplane flights and field measurement campaigns could fill this gap.

Leaky Gas

CMS-funded research has also focused on methane, the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Harvard University atmospheric chemist Daniel Jacob has shown that methane measurements from satellites and ground-based instruments can be used to test and improve values reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on estimated methane emissions rates from different sources. EPA has used Jacob’s methods to produce improved methane emission maps and may incorporate such techniques into its official methane source inventory.

At a more local scale, Hutyra and colleagues developed methods for detecting and attributing methane leaks from urban natural gas pipelines. Partially on the basis of the results and numerous meetings between the researchers and policy makers, both the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts revised their rules for gas leak repairs. Boston also incorporated results from separate CMS-funded research on vehicle emissions into its transportation plan for 2030.

The successes show how CMS has made carbon measurement science policy relevant, Hutyra said. “We’ve demonstrated it can be done, we’ve quantified the uncertainties, and it’s moving toward becoming operational by non-university scientists.”

Political Science

“The changing climate has profound impacts and opportunities for us and for our adversaries.”

CMS’s stop and start reinforce the divisions around climate science that have become the norm in Washington. Trump administration budget requests have also targeted NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite mission and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 instrument.

But NASA and Congress are increasingly charting a separate course. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers came to CMS’s defense after the announcement that it would be shuttered. And at a House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing this week, committee members on both sides of the aisle agreed that the climate is clearly changing and asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA experts for guidance. Michael Freilich, the outgoing head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, confirmed the scientific consensus, saying, “the changing climate has profound impacts and opportunities for us and for our adversaries.”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who once questioned the scientific consensus on climate change, now also embraces it. Meanwhile, the White House recently announced plans to create its own panel to study climate change based on a proposal by a well-known climate skeptic.

“We’re Back!”

Last Friday, NASA released a solicitation for new CMS proposals. Although the program’s overall focus remains unchanged, the agency will place more emphasis on carbon in aquatic environments such as oceans and wetlands in the new funding round, said Kenneth Jucks, a program manager at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Even after being told to wind down the program, NASA did not cancel any already-funded grants. But the administration’s attempt to kill the program meant a year’s delay for all new projects; new funding decisions won’t be announced until sometime this summer.

“I think we lost some momentum,” Hurtt said. But, he added, “to me it’s a happy story. Because we’re back!”

—Gabriel Popkin (gpopkin@gmail.com; @gabrielpopkin), Freelance Science Journalist


Popkin, G. (2019), New budget bill rescues NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO117385. Published on 28 February 2019.

Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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