The Heat Is Online

Congress Cuts Funds for Climate Research Stations


NOAA Loses Funding to Gather Long-Term Climate Data
Science Magazine, Jan. 14, 2005

Congress has eliminated funding for a fledgling network of 110 observation stations intended to provide a definitive, long-term climate record for the United States.

The surprise assault on the Climate Reference Network (CRN) was buried in the 3000-page omnibus spending package for 2005 signed last month by President George W. Bush (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1662). Legislators also took a bite out of a long-established atmospheric monitoring network that includes the historic time sequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels measured at Hawaii's Mauna Loa.

Both networks are key pillars in a much-touted international "system of systems" for earth observation that the Bush Administration has called essential for resolving uncertainties in the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (Science, 20 August 2004, p. 1096). While federal officials say they plan to "limp along" this year and hope for better news in 2006, some scientists worry that the cuts signal a lack of political support for filling those gaps.

"[CRN] ties everything together," says Richard Hallgren, former director of the National Weather Service and executive director emeritus of the American Meteorological Society. "Eliminating it would be an absolute disaster."

The excision of CRN's $3 million budget is part of a $10.6 million cut in the $24.3 million climate observations and services program, which supports a far-flung monitoring system operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The reference network was part of the president's 2005 request for NOAA and was funded in separate bills that had moved through the House and Senate. But "it disappeared" after conferees completed work on the massive bill that bankrolled dozens of federal agencies, notes program head David Goodrich.

CRN is meant to provide a 50-year climate record--including solar radiation, wind speed, and relative humidity--that is of much higher quality than existing temperature and precipitation records from weather stations. The weather stations are often staffed by volunteers, and the data are undermined by changing urban conditions, poor maintenance, and other variables. In contrast, CRN will rely on state-of-the-art equipment located in protected areas such as national parks and inspected regularly. "This network," says Thomas Karl, its moving force as director of NOAA's National Climate Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, "will eliminate the adjustments and corrections that we've had to make in the data" that have spawned so much debate about recent U.S. climate trends.

But this year's budget squeeze, he says, raises questions about the viability of the network, begun in 2001 and with 56 stations now operating. For starters, the cuts will force 16 new stations scheduled to be commissioned this year into "hibernation." It also means no money for some 20 technicians who crisscross the country to tend the equipment. Karl has siphoned off $1.5 million from other programs to keep on a skeletal maintenance crew. But he's worried that the hibernating stations could become degraded without proper maintenance and that further delays could trigger a clause in its site leases that requires NOAA to dismantle the entire system if the stations are not in use.

Also at risk are the five observatories operated by NOAA's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory (CMDL) in Boulder, Colorado. These sites, from Alaska to the South Pole, measure levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, halogenated compounds, ozone, aerosols, and other atmospheric constituents. The data help researchers build better climate models.

A $2.5 million budget cut means that the observatories will be serviced less often, and several contractors will be given the boot, says CMDL Director David Hofmann. That will increase the burden on an aging system that, among other achievements, includes a Hawaiian project begun by Charles Keeling in 1958 that first alerted the world to a steady rise in C02 levels. "The road is barely passable now," Hofmann says about the 180- kilometer roundtrip to the Mauna Loa summit. "At some point we won't even be able to make it up there."

Beyond the loss of data from individual monitoring stations, the cuts jeopardize the Bush Administration's Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS), a planned linking of existing networks to paint a comprehensive, real-time picture of what's happening to the planet. "It raises the question of whether the nation is willing to support a sustained, long-term effort to do the best possible job of monitoring our climate," says Kenneth Kunkel of the Illinois State Water Survey, who chairs CRN's ad hoc science working group.

To Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the message from legislators is even bleaker. "It's almost as if some people don't want to know how the climate is changing," he says. "Maybe they prefer uncertainty, so that they can avoid taking action."