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NASA's Contributions to Carbon Management:
Using Carbon Cycle Science to Inform Decisions

Edwin Sheffner
Applied Sciences Program, Science Mission Directorate
NASA, Washington, D.C.

Carbon in the atmosphere is a controlling factor on climate and hence on ecological productivity and the sustainability of life. The flow of carbon among the land, oceans, and atmosphere is called, the carbon cycle. Carbon cycle science is the study of the carbon cycle and includes an emphasis on reducing the uncertainties regarding how carbon enters the atmosphere and how it is stored (sequestered) on land and in the oceans. Carbon management is the extension of carbon cycle science in decision support tools that assist resource managers and policy makers effect carbon emissions and sequestration.

What is the role of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in carbon management? How has NASA's role been defined and how is NASA responding to stakeholders concerned with carbon cycle science and the management of carbon in terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric systems?

The United States Congress created NASA in 1958 and assigned the new independent agency responsibility for research and development of non-military aeronautic and space activities for the U.S. government. The legislation that created NASA outlined general objectives for the agency, including:

  1. expansion of knowledge of atmospheric phenomena;
  2. development and operation of vehicles carrying instruments in space;
  3. establishment of long range studies of the potential benefits accrued through the utilization of space for scientific purposes;
  4. maintaining the Unite States as a leader in space science and technology and the application of that technology in peaceful activities "within and outside the atmosphere"; and,
  5. cooperation with other nations in the pursuit of peaceful application of NASA-developed technology.

(Public Law #85-568 "National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, Section 102) The mandate given to NASA in 1958 is reflected in the agency's mission statement to understand and protect the Earth, explore the universe, search for life, and inspire the next generation of explorers.

In short, NASA is a science and technology-based organization focused on aerospace. The agency has four directorates - exploration, space operations, aeronautics, and science. The science directorate encompasses the use of space as a unique vantage point to obtain information on the natural and physical processes that shape our environment and affect our well-being. The development and launching of weather research satellites, a NASA function from the agency's first decade, contributes toward understanding the planet's atmospheric dynamics and improves weather and climate predictions. The agency continues to fill that role, providing systems engineering to build and launch the fleet of weather satellites operated by NOAA. In the latter part of the 1960's, NASA developed and demonstrated the ability to study Earth's terrestrial processes with the Landsat program. Since then, the contribution of NASA systems toward increasing understanding of the dynamics of Earth's system processes has steadily expanded. Today, NASA operates a suite of 30 research spacecraft with a total of more than 100 instruments that collect and transmit information daily on the state of Earth’s oceans, land surface, atmosphere, and incoming solar energy. The United States is the primary contributor to technologies used by space programs in the public and private sectors worldwide. These Earth observation technologies provide the data and support the predictions that enable geoscience research and applications to occur at regional, continental, and global scales.

Measurements of key geophysical parameters of the Earth are essential to increasing understanding of its critical physical, chemical, and biological processes. Knowledge of those processes is derived from scientific analysis of observations. In the early 1980's NASA began complementing its Earth observation program with the study of Earth as a system. That science program, which continues today, directs research in atmospheric, terrestrial, and aquatic processes; additionally, it drives the development of innovative Earth-orbiting instruments for measurements and monitoring.

Carbon cycle and ecosystems is one of seven focus areas of the Research and Analysis Program in the Earth-Sun System Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. This science falls within NASA's mission because advancing knowledge of the carbon cycle is essential to "...understand and protect our home planet."

Figure 1 — Roadmap for the NASA Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Focus Area: The science activities within the Earth-Sun System Division are the basis for carbon management. The letters "A" through "D" indicate research milestones that will feed directly into the carbon management roadmap (see Figure 2). Click on image to see enlarged.

Figure 1 illustrates NASA's approach to carbon cycle studies. The figure is a roadmap developed through consultation with the carbon cycle science research community. The roadmap illustrates how NASA will contribute to the nation's Climate Change Science Program through carbon cycle science research objectives over the next ten years. The goals of the effort at the ten year milestone include significantly improved accuracy of:

  1. estimates of global productivity, i.e. the amount of plant tissue generated by photosynthesis and stored above and below ground, and land cover at fine resolution,
  2. biomass and carbon fluxes, and
  3. ecological forecasts and climate change predictions.

The roadmap illustrates the plan for systematic evaluation of NASA observations and measurements to address uncertainties in the knowledge base of the carbon budget and the progression of research toward meeting the program's goals.

Carbon management is a concern of NASA's carbon cycle research. In the context of the research and analysis program, the focus of carbon management is on the capacity of terrestrial and aquatic systems to sequester carbon. The dynamics of carbon sequestration are fundamental to the carbon cycle and a major source of uncertainty the carbon budget. A current focus of NASA's carbon cycle research is the North American Carbon Program (NACP), a multi-agency effort and a primary element of the Administration's Climate Change Science Program. The goals of the NACP include development of a carbon budget for North America and surrounding oceans in which sources and sinks of carbon (CO, CO2, and CH4) are understood and quantified. The NACP and the carbon cycle program will provide the scientific basis to enhance the utility and accuracy of carbon management decision making. NASA research in carbon cycle science and carbon management applications enables carbon management policies, but does not prescribe any particular policy.

To enhance carbon management decision making through improved knowledge of the carbon dynamics, NASA collaborates with partnering organizations that develop and maintain decision making tools, procedures, and systems employed for resource management and policy development. NASA supports benchmarking the extension of research results in decision tools through the Applied Sciences Program in the Earth-Sun System Division. The goal of the Applied Sciences Program is to extend the benefits of NASA's observations and measurements, and the predictive capabilities of Earth-Sun system models, beyond the research community. The program accomplishes these objectives through partnerships with agencies and organizations with mandates that require decision-making and who "own" decision support tools that can be enhanced through incorporation of observations from NASA systems and/or predictions from NASA Earth science models. Program performance is based on delivering benchmark reports on the capacity of decision support tools that assimilate NASA observations and predictions.

Figure 2 — NASA Carbon Management Roadmap: Letters "A" through "D" indicate inputs from carbon cycle science. (see Figure 1). Click on image to see enlarged.

Carbon management is one of the twelve program elements within the Applied Sciences program. As with the Research and Analysis Program focus areas, each of the Applied Sciences Program elements has a "roadmap" to guide its activities over the next decade. Figure 2 is the roadmap for carbon management. The roadmaps of NASA's Research and Analysis Program and Applied Sciences Program are linked. The Applied Science Program depends on the results of the NASA Research and Analysis Program. For example, in carbon management, the output from the North American Carbon Program (i.e., the tools and techniques used to measure and validate carbon sequestration in above-ground biomass) is the input to the carbon management program to enhance decision support tools that operational agencies can use to verify sequestration programs in agricultural systems.

Figure 3 — Integrated Systems Solution: NASA provides observations and output from predictive models to enhance decision support tools of its partners. The results lead to societal benefits through improved management and policy decisions. Click on image to see enlarged.

Figure 3, the integrated systems solution, illustrates the approach to enhance decision support capabilities. The figure summarizes the relationship between NASA capabilities and the policy and management decisions that benefit society. The major elements are:

  1. the observations and measurements from NASA assets,
  2. the modeling capability within the agency and models developed independently of NASA that use NASA data as input, either solely or in combination with other data sources, and
  3. the decision support tools and systems employed by NASA's partner organizations.

NASA seeks to enhance existing capabilities through incorporation of observations, measurements, and model outputs.

NASA defined carbon management as a program element in 2002. The program element inherited projects related to carbon management that were funded under a carbon science solicitation in 2001. One of those projects is indicative of the types of contributions NASA is making toward carbon management. The Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System (TOPS) is a product of R. Nemani at NASA/Ames and S. Running at the University of Montana. TOPS is a biospheric forecast system used for organizing the monitoring and prediction ecosystem variables acquired by NASA spacecraft that are relevant to forest/range management and wildland fire risk assessment. The purpose of TOPS is to serve as an Internet-accessible backbone to facilitate integration of NASA products — observations and measurements — with surface meteorology and ecosystem models.

Other objectives of TOPS include:

  1. creation of an historical database of key ecosystem variables;
  2. implementation of near-realtime surface weather analysis methodology for "nowcasting" ecosystem states and functions; and,
  3. forecasting ecosystem behavior at various lead times.

TOPS is currently available on-line. The databases referenced by TOPS are stored at the University of Montana and at the Ames Research Center.

The TOPS framework integrates remote sensing, surface meteorology, and ecological models and provides an opportunity for comprehensive assessment of the state and activity of landscape processes. Such knowledge is essential to understanding the flux of carbon between the land and the atmosphere, and the storage of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems.

Another science-based tool supporting carbon management is CQUEST (Carbon Query and Evaluation Support Tools) — an Internet-based query and modeling application that allows users to display, manipulate, and save ecosystem model estimates of carbon sinks and CO2 fluxes in agricultural and forest ecosystems for any location within in the United States. CQUEST is the product of work by Chris Potter and others at the Ames Research Center. The tool allows users to customize map views, navigate through data layers, overlay multiple data layers, print images, and obtain data values from any carbon map data layers in tabular form. CQUEST is based on the use of science products derived from the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra and Aqua spacecraft. CQUEST is integrated with the NASA-developed CASA model. The tool is available on-line and is currently being evaluated on its ability to predict and monitor carbon sequestration by agencies in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE).

Figure 4 — Carbon Sequestration Matrix: Potential NASA inputs to carbon management (sequestration) are identified by scale and reservoir type. Click on image to see enlarged.

The capabilities that NASA contributes to carbon cycle research and carbon management are summarized in a matrix, Figure 4. This matrix lists potential reservoirs for carbon along with existing and potential instrumentation for predicting, measuring, and monitoring carbon sequestration at scales ranging from in situ to global. The matrix will evolve and become more robust and precise as the carbon cycle research and carbon management programs develop. In its present form, the matrix illustrates one of the primary characteristics of NASA's contributions toward carbon cycle science and carbon management. As the scale increases, the impact of NASA capabilities is increasingly important and can become crucial in extrapolating our understanding of carbon dynamics at a given site to regional and global scales, and validating insights on global processes at the local level.

NASA funds projects selected through competitive solicitation to enhance the decision support capabilities (through tools such as TOPS and CQUEST) of organizations responsible for measuring and monitoring carbon fluxes. In 2004, the Program participated in the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems solicitation within the Earth-Sun Division (NRA-04-OES-01). Six projects started in FY05 (using FY04 funds) through the Carbon Cycle solicitation are related to carbon management. Three of these projects have plans to verify, validate, and benchmark decision support tools:

  • Richard Birdsey: USDA Forest Service — "Linking Landscape-scale Carbon Monitoring with Forest Management"
  • Paul Doraiswamy: USDA/Agricultural Research Service — "Decision Support Systems for Carbon Management across the U.S. Corn Belt using NASA Remote Sensing Data Products"
  • Tristan West: Department of Energy/Oak Ridge National Lab. — "Development of a Framework and Modeling Tool for Spatially-Explicit Full Carbon and Greenhouse Gas Accounting at the Regional to National Scale: Estimating Net C-equivalent Flux from U.S. Agriculture"

In summary:

  • NASA has a mandate to collect and distribute information about Earth from the vantage point of space.
  • NASA develops and launches research spacecraft that collect observations of Earth's terrestrial, atmospheric, and oceanic environments.
  • These observing capabilities, and the predictive capabilities of Earth science models, are used by the research community in the Climate Change Science Program and other national and international activities.
  • The impacts of NASA capabilities for measuring, monitoring, and verification of carbon sequestration are a function of the scale of the observations, with impacts increasing as scale increases.
  • The Applied Science Program in NASA extends the benefits of research results in the form of knowledge, data, and technology to the community interested in carbon fluxes and carbon sequestration, among others.
  • NASA's contributions to carbon management have been through the evaluation of the performance of decision support tools based on the use of NASA observations and predictions.

About the Author

Edwin Sheffner manages the carbon management program element in the Applied Sciences Program of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He can be reached at [email protected].

NASA Article Series

The following articles were originally published in Earth Observation Magazine in the issues indicated below. The first article, "NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society," introduces the series.

    Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  1. NASA Space Systems Enable Science for Society
    Ronald J. Birk, Richard L. Miller, Carlos E. Del Castillo, Timothy L. Miller, James F. Spann
  2. Enterprise Architecture for NASA's Earth-Sun Science Activities
    Leonard Brownlow, James Martin
  3. Originally published in the June 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  4. NASA's Contributions to Carbon Management: Using Carbon Cycle Science to Inform Decisions
    Edwin Sheffner
  5. Extending The Results Of NASA Research For Homeland Security
    Stephen Ambrose, Dr. Bruce Davis
  6. Originally published in the July 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  7. Air Quality Management Through Earth Observations & Models
    Lawrence Friedl, Doreen Neil, R. Bradley Pierce & the NASA Air Quality Program Team
  8. Extending the Use of NASA Research Results for Coastal Management Decision Support
    Lawrence A. Friedl, Callie M. Hall
  9. Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Earth Observation Magazine

  10. Extending NASA Research Capabilities For Disaster Management
    Stephen Ambrose, Shahid Habib, Rodney McKellip
  11. NASA Space Systems Enhance Public Health Science for Society
    John A. Haynes, Robert Venezia

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