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NIST Greenhouse Gas Measurements and Climate Research Program Overview

Earth's climate is changing.  But to get a clear assessment of these changes, scientists need to be sure that the vast amounts of climate data they collect are accurate.  Accuracy is critical to the comparison of measurement results obtained in widely separated locations and at different times. Such results are often the basis for developing greater insights into the chemical and physical phenomena that cause our climate to change. Accurate measurements enable scientists to draw reliable conclusions. A stable, internationally-recognized frame of reference, such as the International System of Units (SI), provides the basis both for data comparability and for international acceptance of measurement results and insights concerning climatic behaviors. The work begun by Charles D. Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography is an exceptional example of the value to the climate science community of a data record founded on close attention to methodologies that ensure accurate measurement results over long periods.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has a unique role among the organizations involved in climate research: It is working with industry and many other government agencies – NASA, NOAA, DOE, USGS, EPA, USDA, and NSF[1] – to ensure the accuracy, comparability, and quality of greenhouse gas emissions and climate measurements. NIST is working to improve the accuracy of methods used to allocate the sources of human-derived carbon emissions to and removals from the atmosphere and to provide a range of measurement standards important to climate research.  

In the 2011 Federal budget, NIST has $12.5 million allocated for greenhouse gas emissions measurement research.

Recently, NIST's Congressionally mandated role in climate science has expanded to include:

  • Environmental Data Records: Improve the quality of past, present, and future environmental data records, including predictions for the rate and magnitude of climate change. NIST, for example, has been working with NASA to address small discrepancies between satellite sensors in measurements of the Sun's total light output.

  • Satellite Remote Sensing: Provide the highest return for (or to) our nation's multibillion dollar investment in satellite remote sensing by ensuring that those measurements are tied to SI standards and are comparable regardless of the source of the data.  NIST provides standards for the amount of infrared and visible radiation to allow U.S. satellite measurements to be compared with satellite measurements from other nations.

  • Earth's Energy Balance: Advance optical radiation science to allow measurement of the energy or radiative balance of the Earth at the accuracy required for monitoring the changes that drive and signify climate change. NIST is developing new capabilities to measure infrared radiation more accurately, to allow satellite sensors to make benchmark measurements of the infrared radiation that the Earth emits.

  • Climate Models: Provide measurement science and fundamental data needed to improve the predictive capability and uncertainty quantification of climate models.

  • Black Carbon Aerosols:  NIST measurements will provide improved knowledge of the optical and physical properties of black carbon aerosols – small, soot-like particles produced by industrial processes and combustion – to help scientists in improving their representation in climate models and potentially serve as a basis for developing new aerosol standards.

NIST Greenhouse Gas Measurements

In addition to these goals, NIST scientists have proposed a system for classifying sources of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions according to their size. This system, illustrated below, may be useful in the conceptualization of a national system for emissions reduction and verification.

greenhouse gas flowchart

The Dimensions of the Quantitative Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measurements and Validation Challenge

NIST seeks to advance greenhouse gas measurements and standards as the foundation to improve U.S. capabilities for better quantifying emissions from a range of sources, and similarly the effect of sinks, or "offsets", comprised of areas containing forests and wetlands.  NIST standards work also supports other monitoring efforts that may help future verification efforts.

The breadth of such an effort requires NIST to work closely with industry, other Federal agencies, and the states.  Working collaboratively, NIST will enhance international acceptance of U.S. measurement standards and methods as a foundation for quantitative, science-based greenhouse gas emission inventories and offsets.  Its main greenhouse gas measurements and climate science research program objectives include:

  • Improve current measurement and standards infrastructure that increase confidence in greenhouse gas emission inventories by assessing and improving the accuracy of existing measurement technologies and methods.
    Goal: Validate methods for field measurements of stationary source emission inventories with overall accuracies of five percent or less and traceable to the SI.  To accomplish this goal, NIST is upgrading the measurement capabilities of its large fire laboratory to help advance accuracy in determining smokestack emissions.

  • Develop and validate optical measurement tools that characterize, quantify, and verify the amount of greenhouse gas emitted or absorbed by geographically distributed sources and sinks.
    Goal: Develop and transfer new, validated diagnostic and measurement tools to the private sector and work with standards developing organizations to incorporate methods for their use in consensus standards.

  • With industry and other agencies, develop, deploy, and demonstrate standards and methodologies needed to reconcile U.S. greenhouse gas emission inventories with atmospheric monitoring results. 
    Goal: Develop and assess quantitative verification capabilities for a major U.S. geographical region so that greenhouse gases emitted from the area's sources can be reconciled with the amount observed through atmospheric monitoring of that region.


[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Science Foundation.