U.S. scientists have
developed a new, integrated, ten-year science plan to better understand the
details of Earth’s carbon cycle and people’s role in it. Understanding the
carbon cycle is central for mitigating climate change and developing a
sustainable future. The plan builds on the first such plan, published in 1999,
but identifies new research areas such as the role of humans as agents and
managers of carbon cycling and climate change, the direct impact of greenhouse
gases on ecosystems including changes to the diversity of plants and animals
and ocean acidification, the need to address social concerns, and how best to
communicate scientific results to the public and decision makers.
The first carbon science plan for the U.S., published
in 1999, resulted in numerous breakthroughs for understanding the carbon cycle
and how it is changing in response to human pressures. For instance,
researchers discovered that the huge quantities of carbon dioxide absorbed by
the oceans are causing ocean acidification, which is harming sea life and
affecting the food chain. Research also characterized the large uptake of
carbon by plants and soils in the Northern Hemisphere, and found that
understanding land use and disturbance patterns is integral to understanding
the global carbon cycle.
The new plan is the culmination of a
three-year effort with input from hundreds of scientists about the current
needs of the research community. Carnegie Institution for Science’s Anna Michalak,
Duke University’s Rob Jackson, Appalachian State University’s Gregg Marland,
and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Christopher Sabine
led the work on the 2011 A U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Plan.
“Although there has been a bonanza of
new understanding about the carbon cycle over the last decade, many new questions
have arisen,” remarks Michalak of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology. “A
U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Plan lays the groundwork for expanding beyond a
primary focus on the ‘natural’ carbon flows between the atmosphere, oceans, and
plant life, to fully integrate human impacts and the role of both intentional
and inadvertent carbon management decisions.”
The team developed four science
elements to drive the research. The backbone of the research strategy is to
strengthen the network of observations to better monitor and track carbon as it
winds its way through the atmosphere, ecosystems, oceans and society, and to
find out how this changes over time. Other elements include studies of the
processes that control the flows and transformations of carbon, and developing
numerical models to predict future behavior.
Another important aspect of the plan is
its increased emphasis on communication and making research more accessible to
policy makers and the general public. It is hoped that this will lead to
rational and well-informed decisions on how best to manage the global carbon
cycle, especially the human impacts on it.
In an era of tight budgets and with
public questions about the value of science, this plan calls for an expanded
role for careful, integrated, and clear science to inform and support human
objectives for a sustainable environment.