What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Richard Houghton

Acting President & Senior Scientist
Richard A. Houghton

When the “idiot” light on your car’s dashboard glows red, there are two solutions: add oil or water to take care of the over-heating engine or disconnect the idiot light. Both solutions have the immediate effect of eliminating the warning.

Data made available through the long-term monitoring of the environment are analogous.  They show these days that the surface air temperature of the Earth is heating, that sea-level is rising, and that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing.  All of these changes are evidence of a changing climate.  And more than a few people are suggesting that we cut back on such monitoring. After all, cutting back saves money, and we need money for so many other purposes.

As preposterous as this may seem, we actually are cutting back on monitoring the environment. Ralph Keeling, who inherited the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s carbon monitoring program, and supplemented it with measurements of the oxygen concentration, is facing budget cuts unlike any he’s experienced previously. NOAA’s program that monitors carbon dioxide concentrations around the globe is also experiencing budget cuts, as are other monitoring programs, whether conducted on the ground, at sea, or from space.

The problem is worse. Government spending now covers less than half of the initial global monitoring program, and the money provided is from constantly threatened and exponentially more competitive research budgets rather than from dedicated programs.   Long-term, continuous, and standardized data are apparently not appreciated by the government or the public.  Instead, the collection of such data relies on the ingenuity and dedication of a few individual scientists. While NOAA represents the government’s recognition that the ocean and atmosphere must be monitored, there is no equivalent agency chartered to look after changes in the Earth’s surface. Those changes involve the productivity of agricultural lands, the emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, responses to and feedbacks in the climate-carbon system, and biodiversity, to mention just a few.

Monitoring changes in the land is the work of the Woods Hole Research Center. Our scientists have been working across the globe for decades consistently measuring, mapping and modeling the impacts of land use change on the global carbon cycle.  Our work and that of Ralph Keeling and NOAA provides the evidence of a changing climate which is imperative to the development of strategies for adaptation and mitigation.