Monday, April 21, 2014

George Hurtt named Science Team Leader for NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System

By Catherine Irwin

Early last month Council on the Environment member and Geographical Sciences Director of Research and Professor, George Hurtt, was named Science Team Leader for NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS).

Due to the increased attention climate change and carbon have been receiving in recent years, Congress has followed up its 2010 direction to NASA for initial studies on carbon monitoring with increased funding in 2012 for the continued research and development of a carbon monitoring system.

“Global climate is changing, and the primary driver of that change is increasing carbon in the atmosphere as a result of human activities,” said Hurtt. “If society wants to slow the rate of climate change, it must find way to slow the rate of carbon being added to atmosphere.”

In 2012, NASA issued a request for proposals for work on Phase-2 of the carbon monitoring system, received 62 proposals, and selected 17 for funding. Some teams are looking at how carbon interacts with land, others are examining the oceans and the atmosphere. Following the selection, NASA established the CMS Science Team, including the Principal Investigators selected under this solicitation, as well as key scientists for Phase-1 activities through their duration. The CMS Science Team is responsible for providing broad research community involvement in the development and evaluation of NASA CMS products; coordinating their NASA-funded CMS activities to ensure maximum returns for science, management, and policy; and providing scientific, technical, and policy-relevant inputs to help set priorities and directions for future NASA CMS activities. In addition, the Science Team provides insights as to how to choose among multiple approaches and/or alternative products, and provide important perspectives on product development and implementation and how to quantitatively evaluate products. It also assists in making connections to ongoing and newly developing activities with similar and/or complementary objectives being undertaken by other entities, especially other U.S. Federal agencies.

As the project’s Science Team Leader, Hurtt has primary responsibility for providing scientific leadership and direction to the Science Team, as well as scientific input to NASA management.


“In general I like the vantage point being the Science Team Leader,” said Hurtt. “I’m heavily involved in one of the 17 projects as a researcher. As the team leader, I get to step back and look at everything on a global level and work to understand how the whole system works and could be monitored.”

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” said Hurtt. “To support potential decision-making to manage carbon, one needs a robust system to be able to measure carbon, and this is the goal of CMS.”

Hurtt’s involvement in the project will also bring more positive attention to the University of Marylands. Researchers at the university have a long history of scientific leadership and collaboration with NASA, something students can learn and benefit from.

“UMD provides a great opportunity for students to interact with professors who are not only good classroom professors, but who are also working to make a real difference in the outside world,” said Hurtt.

While there are many different federal agencies who conduct important research on carbon, NASA has a key role in carbon monitoring due to its unique capabilities.

“NASA has a unique vantage point from space,” said Hurtt. “Their main tool is to use remote sensing (satellite and aircraft data) to monitor planetary changes at high resolution and over global scales. This will be an essential capability of future carbon monitoring systems.”

“We will be placing almost equal emphasis on measuring carbon and on quantifying the accuracy and precision with which we measure it. Both are essential to support decision making,” said Hurtt.

Hurtt notes that the research being done for Phase-2 is limited, and that the development of a robust carbon monitoring system will take additional time and resources, as well as key partnerships with other agencies, due to the complexities involved. He believes that this phase of development is critical and will pave the way for improved tools and approaches to tackle the complexity of carbon monitoring ahead.