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First Direct Observation of Carbon Dioxide’s Increasing Greenhouse Effect at Earth’s Surface

Researchers Link Rising CO₂ Levels from Fossil Fuels to Radiative Forcing

February 25, 2015

Contact: Dan Krotz,, 510-486-4019

ARM Alaska

Caption: The scientists used incredibly precise spectroscopic instruments at two sites operated by the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility. This research site is on the North Slope of Alaska near the town of Barrow. They also collected data from a site in Oklahoma. Image: Jonathan Gero

Scientists have observed an increase in carbon dioxide’s (CO₂) greenhouse effect at the Earth’s surface for the first time. The researchers, led by scientists from Berkeley Lab, measured atmospheric CO₂’s increasing capacity to absorb thermal radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface over an 11-year period at two locations in North America. They attributed this upward trend to rising CO₂ levels from fossil fuel emissions.

The influence of atmospheric CO₂ on the balance between incoming energy from the Sun and outgoing heat from the Earth (also called the planet’s energy balance) is well established. But this effect has not been experimentally confirmed outside the laboratory until now. The research, which utilized supercomputing resources at NERSC and the Community Earth System Model, was reported February 25 in the advance online publication of the journal Nature.

The results agree with theoretical predictions of the greenhouse effect due to human activity. The research also provides further confirmation that the calculations used in today’s climate models are on track when it comes to representing the impact of CO₂.

The scientists measured atmospheric carbon dioxide’s contribution to radiative forcing at two sites, one in Oklahoma and one on the North Slope of Alaska, from 2000 to the end of 2010. Radiative forcing is a measure of how much the planet’s energy balance is perturbed by atmospheric changes. Positive radiative forcing occurs when the Earth absorbs more energy from solar radiation than it emits as thermal radiation back to space. It can be measured at the Earth’s surface or high in the atmosphere. In this research, the scientists focused on the surface.

They found that CO₂ was responsible for a significant uptick in radiative forcing at both locations, about two-tenths of a Watt per square meter per decade. They linked this trend to the 22 parts-per-million increase in atmospheric CO₂ between 2000 and 2010. Much of this CO₂ is from the burning of fossil fuels, according to a modeling system that tracks CO₂ sources around the world.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO₂ in the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” said Daniel Feldman, a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division and lead author of the Nature paper. “Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO₂ concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect.”

He conducted the research with fellow Berkeley Lab scientists Bill Collins and Margaret Torn, as well as Jonathan Gero of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Timothy Shippert of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Eli Mlawer of Atmospheric and Environmental Research.

Incredibly Precise Instruments

The scientists used incredibly precise spectroscopic instruments operated by the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. These instruments, located at ARM research sites in Oklahoma and Alaska, measure thermal infrared energy that travels down through the atmosphere to the surface. They can detect the unique spectral signature of infrared energy from CO₂.

Other instruments at the two locations detect the unique signatures of phenomena that can also emit infrared energy, such as clouds and water vapor. The combination of these measurements enabled the scientists to isolate the signals attributed solely to CO₂.

“We measured radiation in the form of infrared energy. Then we controlled for other factors that would impact our measurements, such as a weather system moving through the area,” Feldman said.

The result is two time-series from two very different locations. Each series spans from 2000 to the end of 2010 and includes 3,300 measurements from Alaska and 8,300 measurements from Oklahoma obtained on a near-daily basis.

Both series showed the same trend: atmospheric CO₂ emitted an increasing amount of infrared energy, to the tune of 0.2 Watts per square meter per decade. This increase is about ten percent of the trend from all sources of infrared energy such as clouds and water vapor.

Based on an analysis of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s CarbonTracker system, the scientists linked this upswing in CO₂-attributed radiative forcing to fossil fuel emissions and fires.

The measurements also enabled the scientists to detect, for the first time, the influence of photosynthesis on the balance of energy at the surface. They found that CO₂-attributed radiative forcing dipped in the spring as flourishing photosynthetic activity pulled more of the greenhouse gas from the air.

The research team used approximately 5,000 CPU hours on NERSC’s Hopper and Edison systems to perform their calculations. They ran a large number of radiative transfer calculations that turned out to be very parallel, so they then used the taskfarmer utility for some 500 calculations at a time, with each lasting about 10 minutes on a single core.

“NERSC resources played an invaluable role in completing the tens of thousands of calculations that were necessary for our paper's analysis,” Feldman said. “We are also grateful to the support staff for helping us to maximize the throughput of these calculations.”

About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NERSC serves almost 10,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in climate, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.