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NOAA to track buildup of gases

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY A federal agency Wednesday unveiled "CarbonTracker," the first global system for monitoring man-made greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The online tool, which aims to track and map carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, "will provide a fundamental ground truth about climate," says Richard Spinrad of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials, industries and analysts need clear numbers as they debate and decide how to lessen the buildup of greenhouse gases, says NOAA scientist Pieter Tans. Some, such as carbon dioxide, linger for centuries.

NOAA: View the CarbonTracker

"We need to look at what the atmosphere is trying to tell us," Tans says.

The announcement comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in February that estimated a "very likely" rise in average global temperature of 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, depending on future emissions of greenhouse gases.

The same panel concluded the evidence was "unequivocal" that the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — had warmed the atmosphere in the 20th century by about 1 degree.

"If (NOAA) can do this, the effects would be remarkable," says John Drexhage of Canada's International Institute for Sustainable Development. "NOAA tracking emissions would go a long way toward depoliticizing emissions and help level the playing field in accounting for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." For example, new coal-burning power plants could start pumping carbon dioxide underground first in regions that are the leading sources of emissions, rather than everywhere at once.

For now, the Internet-based tool relies on about 60 carbon dioxide tracking stations worldwide to generate "carbon weather" maps. Scientists hope to add thousands of stations worldwide, Tans says, and add the capability to track the faintly radioactive isotope of carbon tied to fossil fuel burning to monitor industrial and automotive emissions in real time next year.

The announcement coincided with Wednesday's appearance by former vice president Al Gore (fresh off his Academy Award for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth) at Capitol Hill hearings to discuss measures for cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.

Tracking carbon dioxide won't solve larger questions of how society will decide to deal with global warming, Drexhage says, "but at least it means we can have an honest discussion."

A snapshot of the surface uptake of CO2 across North America showing the strongest CO2 sinks (blue colors) in the East Coast forests, coniferous forests in Canada and the U.S. Midwest. Note that the largest carbon cycle component, the fossil fuel emissions, is not shown on this map. The figure represents a week in July of 2005 and illustrates one of he many products in CarbonTracker.

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