Why NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System Matters

June 5, 2018 | 11:07 am
Rachel Licker
Principal Climate Scientist

Future funding for NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS) was recently cancelled, leaving the important program in jeopardy unless Congress takes action soon.

Why is the Carbon Monitoring System important?

The CMS complements other NASA carbon monitoring work by taking Earth science observations and doing research with them that improves understanding of how carbon flows through our land, biosphere, waterbodies, ocean, and atmosphere. As a result, the CMS funds work that allows for better management of these natural resources and better understanding of how they will respond to global changes, such as climate and land use change.

The research that comes out of the CMS has real world benefits for communities across the United States, as one of its objectives is to meet stakeholder needs across a range of scales. For example, NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System recently funded work that provided fine-resolution information on a vast swath of forest stocks in interior Alaska. This project made use of NASA airborne LiDAR technology to provide information on forest resources within the state that were previously understudied due to their remote location. The region covered in the analysis accounts for 15% of US forested land.

Other CMS projects include research to:

  • Improve measurements of carbon storage in the U.S. Corn Belt, which stands to enhance measurements of agricultural productivity and management practices.
  • Advance understanding of the Great Lakes, and how carbon is stored in them.
  • Improve understanding of how land use decisions and changes in climate such as extreme weather events affect nutrient cycling and water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.

Through these projects and others, CMS is helping stitch together observations of carbon sources and sinks to produce a high resolution representation of how carbon flows through our planet.

What Congress can do to ensure the survival of the Carbon Monitoring System

In May, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee approved language that would restore funding for the CMS in a bill that provides funding for NASA in 2019. While the amendment provides $10 million to the program, now under a slightly different name (the Climate Monitoring System), the funds would, “… help develop the capabilities necessary for monitoring, reporting, and verification of biogeochemical processes to better understand the major factors driving short and long-term climate change.” Given that this is virtually identical to the mission of the current CMS, it seems clear the intent of this amendment is to continue funding for this existing program.

As the Senate now turns to mark-up the FY-19 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, they will have the opportunity to ensure that funding for this important initiative continues. An investment in the CMS would ensure that NASA has the funds available to study its carbon measurements and make them usable for decision makers, resource managers, and communities across the country.


Posted in: Climate Change

Tags: carbon, NASA

About the author

More from Rachel

Rachel Licker is principal climate scientist with the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she provides strategic thinking and technical and analytical expertise across the organization, analyzes new developments in climate science, and communicates climate science to policymakers, the public, and the media.