Getting to know carbon

From Washington, D.C., at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union

“Carbon is one of the great atoms of the periodic table,” says D. James Baker, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for carbon atoms.”

Baker pointed to carbon’s versatility and its significance in potential climate change as he announced on June 1 the implementation of the Carbon Cycle Science Initiative. It aims to coordinate funding and research to determine how the element cycles through the land, water, and atmosphere. It will also boost the number, accuracy, and distribution of carbon-measuring stations.

In particular, scientists want to know what role rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas, may play in warming Earth’s climate. Researchers don’t know how Earth stores much of the carbon dioxide that human activity releases or if the planet’s storage capacity can change. “Regardless of whether one believes that such climate changes will be harmful or beneficial, intelligent decisions about any future actions—or nonactions—regarding management of the carbon cycle will require the best possible scientific information on its function,” says Jorge L. Sarmiento of Princeton University.

The fiscal year 2001 budget currently before Congress requests a 12 percent increase for carbon-cycle science, raising its funding to $229 million. The biggest increase would support carbon measurements by the Department of Agriculture.

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