ANN ARBOR---To make sense of a complex picture, sometimes it helps to take a step back and get the long view. But when it comes to seeing the complex picture of the world's carbon budget---where human activity releases greenhouse gases, and where the Earth's natural systems gobble them back up again---that long view is fraught with technical problems: How do you measure something as small as an atom of carbon in an area as large as the entire world?
An international group of scientists will be meeting at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Oct. 20-22, to figure those problems out. The three-day technical symposium is sponsored by the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) and the U-M.
The session is intended as a follow-up to last fall's global warming conference in Buenos Aires and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a worldwide agreement on setting greenhouse gas goals for the developed and underdeveloped world. The Kyoto agreement, which has yet to be ratified by the United States, built a framework for global carbon dioxide emission reductions, and set goals for 38 industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. One of the innovative approaches hammered out at Kyoto was the notion of creating a world market for "carbon credits." Parties that could certify they were reducing carbon emissions beyond defined levels would be able to sell or trade their credits to parties that were not able to achieve CO2 emission reduction limits. But measurement and verifying compliance are unresolved technical problems for such a system.
Measuring compliance and figuring out where carbon comes from and where it goes is a huge technical task, said remote sensing expert Craig Dobson, an associate research scientist in U-M's College of Engineering. Part of the measurement problem is that the carbon question isn't limited to easily quantifiable things like smokestacks and cars. The Earth's living systems themselves breathe, consuming and releasing huge amounts of carbon in places like the arctic tundra and the Amazonian rainforest. A combination of space-based measurements and ground-based verification of those data has been proposed to get a handle on where the carbon is coming from and where it's going. Many of the "sinks" for locking up atmospheric carbon are still unidentified, Dobson noted.
"This is a workshop for the technical experts who know how to monitor some of these things from aircraft or space," said Dobson, who is co-hosting the event. "What needs to be measured, to what precision, and how might this be accomplished? There are many people who are thinking and doing things in this area, but there needs to be a higher level of dialogue."
The conference will have a distinctly different flavor each of its three days, Dobson said. The first day is a broad dialogue on what needs to be done, featuring scientists and policy experts from Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. Day Two will be a more technical exploration, with "instrument designers, builders and algorithm guys," into the problems of measuring forests and other biomass remotely and taking an educated guess about their carbon use. On Day Three, the conference participants will go into a closed session to draft a summary of the workshop.
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EDITORS: Media are encouraged to attend the conference, especially the first day. The third day will be closed to the public and media. Details on lodging and travel may be found on the Web at http://www.eecs.umich.edu/kyoto/
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