For decades, climate scientists around the globe have worked together to document and measure the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. This group, the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), meets this week in Boston for their biannual meeting and to celebrate their 35th anniversary.
“Over the past 35 years, this international consortium of researchers has furthered our understanding of a large number of important global chemical and climatic phenomena,” says Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science and leader of AGAGE. Prinn is also co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
They gather this data 20 to 30 times per day at nine coastal or mountain measurement stations located in the U.S., Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, China, South Korea, Tasmania, Barbados, and American Samoa. There are also two collaborative stations in Italy and Japan.
Members of AGAGE have produced hundreds of articles related to measurement techniques, trends of gases in the atmosphere, air circulation patterns, and more. For example, in 2008, AGAGE scientists were the first to report the renewed rise in methane concentrations beginning in 2006. Methane is the second most important long-lived greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Just a month ago, using data collected from AGAGE, Nature Geoscience published a study documenting three decades of global methane observations and emissions.
“The vital data we collected through AGAGE enabled us to better understand the many sources and sinks of methane and their remarkable variability,” says Prinn, a co-author of the study. The collaborating scientists from Europe, USA and other countries concluded that the post-2006 rise is likely because of increased fossil fuel emissions and natural emissions from wetlands. While the exact contributions of these sources are still uncertain, this new research creates a clearer picture of trends in methane emissions around the globe.
Methane is just one of over 50 important long-lived atmospheric gases AGAGE researchers study that affect the ozone layer, climate change and air pollution.
Each station in this global observation network uses the same fully automated on-site instrumentation and calibration scales, so data can be easily compared and aggregated. The stations are strategically distributed throughout the globe to capture both hemispheres, and both polluted and less polluted regions. Beyond methane, the stations capture the majority of purely man-made greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from refrigerators and air conditioners, sulfur hexafluoride from electrical distribution grids, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), that are also one of the remaining rising pollutants known to deplete the ozone layer. Monitoring efforts like AGAGE help policymakers measure the effectiveness of pollution regulations.
Supported primarily by NASA, the data produced by the AGAGE network is available publicly through the U.S. Department of Energy greenhouse gas archive, and is used to support the implementation of international agreements like the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols.
“AGAGE provides essential data to researchers around the globe and allows us to continue to better understand the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere and the human forcing of climate change,” Prinn says. “We are looking forward to seeing what the next 35 years of AGAGE will bring.”
Story by Alli Gold Roberts, MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change