Founded in 2008 and given European Research Infrastructure Consortium status by the EU Commission in 2015, the Integrated Carbon Observation Systems (ICOS) is a network of 130 carbon-measuring stations (along with expertise centres and laboratories) set up to measure greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, as well as how carbon fluxes between the atmosphere, Earth and oceans.
Situated in some of Europe’s most remote locations – from far-flung Nordic mountains to French grasslands and Czech wetlands – each station is designed to provide uniform data on carbon emissions across disparate nations and environments. As one ICOS employee explains, prior to the network, comparing data collected across Europe was “like comparing apples and oranges”.
By making this peer-reviewed data available to scientists and governments worldwide through a centralised portal, ICOS is speeding up our understanding of carbon emissions, and helping scientists keep up with climate change in real time.
“A scientist can start their research by downloading a homogenous dataset available from a single source, instead of collecting measurements from several sources in different formats and of variable quality,” says Elena Saltikoff, head of operations at ICOS. “Ultimately, this is about bringing reliable data and knowledge on greenhouse gases to policy makers much faster than was previously possible.”
An instrument for measuring greenhouse gases, installed in a field in Hohenpeissenberg, in Bavaria, in southern Germany
ICOS is already changing how scientists study climate change. In September 2018, scientists decided to gather data on the drought that led to the vast summer fires that had ravaged Europe earlier that year. Previously, gathering this data would have taken years. Thanks to ICOS, the researchers had the data by Christmas, with the first research paper currently in progress.
Despite this, ICOS leaders argue that policymakers are still not reacting quickly enough to the threat of climate change. “We still have the huge problem that the reduction of fossil-fuel emissions is too slow,” says ICOS director general Werner Kutsch. “If we want to hit the Paris Agreement targets of staying under a 2°C temperature increase, we need to act much faster.”
Kutsch is actively pushing ICOS to collaborate with researchers from the social sciences, mechanical sciences, behavioural sciences and more behind the climate change banner, in the belief that doing so will help galvanise innovation and help force vital policy change. One of its key developments is in helping governments differentiate between natural and man made carbon emissions.
Measuring greenhouse gases at the Swiss Jungfraujoch station, 3,450m above sea level
Many greenhouse gases occur naturally and are exchanged between the oceans, various ecosystems and the atmosphere. Forests and peatlands, for example, are “sinks”, which store carbon dioxide, while forest fires and lakes emit part of it back. Should a sink become significantly weaker – as is currently happening in the Amazon rainforest – Werner believes governments should then be able to use ICOS data to course correct within a timeframe of months rather than years.
The reverse is also possible. Should emissions suddenly decrease, as they have during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kutsch and his team have the chance to see what Earth would look like without the overbearing influence of man.
“We can see that carbon emissions are decreasing through shutting down flights and industries not using as much electricity and so on,” says Kutsch. The decrease in emissions coincides with a natural, seasonal decrease that occurs around spring, when more plants remove carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Kutsch says it should take “some months” for ICOS to collect accurate data on how much of our CO2 reduction is natural, and how much is a result of the pandemic.
A researcher checks scientific instruments in a forest in Lanžhot in the Czech Republic
Whatever the data reveals, Kutsch hopes that the current crisis will help governments view climate change differently. He points to South Korea as an example of a country that took scientists seriously and managed to avoid a catastrophic coronavirus death toll. Once life returns to normal, Kutsch hopes that globally we will all pay more attention to scientists in general.
“I think this is a learning experience,” he says. “Scientists were facing a lot of denial and negative comments in the past, then suddenly we learned from the corona crisis that it is definitely helpful to listen to scientists. I hope this learning experience will last when we’re starting to talk about climate change again.”
He hopes too that this period of slowed-down living will instil lessons of how to move forward. “Perhaps people have learned that not every face to face meeting is necessary and that you can use virtual tools,” he says. “Perhaps behaviour may change, people may learn that it pays to take care of each other. It might be that people find some kind of solidarity between generations, people and countries. In the end, I hope it will improve and strengthen internationalism; in the long run we’ll have to co-operate internationally.”
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