Many greenhouse gases occur naturally and are exchanged between the oceans, various ecosystems and the atmosphere. For example, forests and peatlands store carbon dioxide, while forest fires and lakes emit part of it back. However, fossil-fuel powered industry, agriculture, vehicles and other human activities release vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that warm up the planet.
Approximately half of the carbon dioxide generated by humans stays in the atmosphere and travels on the winds, often thousands of kilometres away from its place of origin. The rest is absorbed by the oceans, forests and other ecosystems that act as sinks.
Understanding this entire process is fundamental in predicting and mitigating the effects of climate change. Key to this work is ICOS, a greenhouse-gas research infrastructure distributed across twelve European countries. ICOS has more than 130 measurement stations and three thematic centres gathering expertise in key fields of science: the atmosphere, natural ecosystems (forests, fields, lakes, etc.) and the ocean.
Similar standards, better data
By establishing uniform standards for measurement and analysis, ICOS is able to produce datasets that are comparable between countries. The data is accessible through the ICOS Carbon Portal, which is open and free for anyone to use.
“Now a scientist can start their research by downloading a homogenous dataset available from a single source – the ICOS Carbon Portal – instead of collecting measurements from several sources in different formats and of variable quality,” says Dr Elena Saltikoff, Head of Operations at ICOS.
“In the past, methodologies varied and measurements were documented in different ways. Now, a station’s ICOS certificate guarantees that it meets our high standards. Ultimately, this is about bringing reliable data and knowledge on greenhouse gases to policymakers much faster than was previously possible.”
The ICOS measurement stations are managed by more than 70 universities and institutes across Europe. Some 500 researchers are part of the infrastructure, which is coordinated from its head office in Helsinki.
“The commitment of the Finnish government played a significant role in establishing the ICOS Head Office in Helsinki,” Saltikoff says. “Finland has long been recognised for its expertise in atmospheric and ecosystem sciences. ICOS Finland consists of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland.”
Understanding the effects of climate change
One of the ICOS signature projects is a study of the drought that hit large parts of northern and central Europe in the spring and summer of 2018. The season was so dry that many trees dropped their leaves and were subsequently unable to extract carbon from the atmosphere. By comparing the ICOS measurements from that summer to ICOS measurements from earlier years, researchers were able to calculate how much these forests contribute to the carbon cycle. This information is crucial for e.g. planning forest management methods to fight climate change.
ICOS has also been developing technology to distinguish between greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels and those that originate in nature. When this data is combined with information on how greenhouse gases move in the atmosphere, ICOS will be able to provide data maps and other data products for cities or countries. The data helps in assessing the efficiency of emission reduction actions and they can thus be adjusted accordingly.
Text by Andrew Flowers
The Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS) is a pan-European research infrastructure that provides harmonised and high-precision scientific data on the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas budget and perturbations. The station networks are funded by different national agencies. The Finnish national
network is being funded by the institutes operating the stations. Finland’s annual contribution to ICOS ERIC
is paid by the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.