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How Climate Data Is Collected

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How Climate Data Is Collected

Science

How Climate Data Is Collected

How Climate Data Is Collected

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President Trump's proposed budget would cut money for climate research that measures a warming world. We tag along to see how air samples are collected on a Colorado mountaintop.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Trump is no supporter of the science around climate change, and his funding plans call for lots of cuts to climate change research. It's a body of work that goes back more than 50 years and tracks rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Scientists have linked that to warmer temperatures and a rising sea level. Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio tagged along as some of this data was collected.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Climate technician Jen Morse is at 11,500 feet, bracing against 30 mile-per-hour winds on icy tundra. A gust whips up the late spring snow around her.

JEN MORSE: Any day up on top of the mountain is better than a day at your desk, even if you can't feel your fingers.

HOOD: Despite the frozen fingers, every week Morse skis, hikes or drives a snowcat to get to this ridge. She works for the University of Colorado at Boulder collecting data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MORSE: We know that CO2 is going up because of sites like this. And there are sites like this all over the world.

HOOD: About 100 in NOAA's network. For hundreds of thousands of years, concentrations of carbon dioxide, or CO2, were never higher than 280 parts per million, but that number began to rise with the industrial revolution. And in recent years, it's rising faster at an unprecedented level. It's the direct result of burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Is that our little shack?

MORSE: That is it.

HOOD: The wooden hut is the size of a one-car-garage. It's buried in snow. Inside sits a desk with small machines and tubes that stick out. A large shelf holds dozens of glass bottles.

MORSE: This is kind of the magic, these guys.

HOOD: Morse hooks up two of them two tubes that suck in the air from outside the hut.

MORSE: All right, so there we go. It finished filling.

HOOD: She writes down the date, the wind speed and temperature.

MORSE: And then we have our sample. And then the only other thing we have to do is not fall and break it (laughter) as we ski back down.

HOOD: Jen Morse gently places each bottle in a snuggly custom-made fleece cover. They go into a large black backpack, then she skis the 4 miles down the mountain. The air samples are driven another 25 miles to NOAA's Earth System Research Lab in Boulder. The Colorado bottles will join others.

PATRICIA LANG: These are from Mongolia, Argentina and Alaska. They come from all around the world.

HOOD: Patricia Lang oversees sample processing in a windowless room. She puts a half-dozen glass bottles on a carousel that tests for some 50 different gases. Lang's worked here for three decades and watched the parts per million of carbon dioxide or PPM on the rise.

LANG: When I started working, you could get 350 PPM. You rarely see anything under 400 now.

HOOD: Carbon dioxide levels made headlines just four years ago when they inched above that milestone of 400 parts per million. On this day, as Lang looks at her computer screen, the sample from the Colorado mountaintop registers at 410. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Boulder, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS LIFE - SAMURAI CHAMPLOO TRIBUTE")

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