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How hot can it get?

Measuring CO2 and greenhouse gases

Our planet is a huge ball surrounded by a wafer-thin layer of air. You could compare it with a balloon covered with a single layer of paper-mâché. A minute part of this layer is made up of CO2 molecules. But, after water vapour, this gas is the most important greenhouse gas, ensuring that the earth maintains an inhabitable temperature. But will it remain inhabitable, now that we’re producing so much CO2?

During the last couple of years, the CO2 content of the atmosphere has been talked of in the press on an almost daily basis. Join SchoolCO2-Net and measure the CO2 in the atmosphere yourself. ©Richard Griffin.
During the last couple of years, the CO2 content of the atmosphere has been talked of in the press on an almost daily basis. Join SchoolCO2-Net and measure the CO2 in the atmosphere yourself. ©Richard Griffin.

More and more scientific research is pointing to the increase in CO2 as a contributor to global warming. However, exactly how much warmer it is getting, and whether this increase in temperature is the same everywhere, remains unclear. There is even a small chance that the climate in Western Europe will become cooler. At present the warm Gulf Stream that originates in Mexico and passes the Western European coast has an important influence on our climate. But this warm stream could actually veer away from us thanks to global warming. Brrr!

How can you predict how fast glaciers and ice caps will melt? And how do you find out if CO2 is the cause? ©TTphoto.
How can you predict how fast glaciers and ice caps will melt? And how do you find out if CO2 is the cause? ©TTphoto.

How fast the atmosphere warms up is dependent on a number of other factors alongside CO2. This makes it difficult to foresee how the temperature will develop. But this does not prevent scientists from trying to predict how the temperature will change in the future. To this end they design complex climate models that simulate the actual situation as accurately as possible. In short, they try to determine which factors influence the air temperature, then try to calculate what effect a change in one of these factors will have on the climate, and finally attempt to capture all this in a mathematical model. The more accurate the model, the more reliable the prediction.

Predict the future with tarot cards? No thanks! Scientists study which factors influence our climate using mathematical climate models. ©Zeyna.
Predict the future with tarot cards? No thanks! Scientists study which factors influence our climate using mathematical climate models. ©Zeyna.

As the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is such an important factor in the climate models, a worldwide network of CO2 monitoring stations has been created. The Centre for Isotope Research (CIO) of the University of Groningen is proud to run one of these monitoring stations, a 60m high mast near the Wadden Sea dike at Hornhuizen.

To reduce the influence of CO2 fluctuations, the University of Groningen measures the CO2 concentration in the air at 60m high near the Wadden Sea dike at Hornhuizen. ©Science LinX.
To reduce the influence of CO2 fluctuations, the University of Groningen measures the CO2 concentration in the air at 60m high near the Wadden Sea dike at Hornhuizen. ©Science LinX.

According to Harro Meijer of the Centre for Isotope Research, measuring CO2 is an art in itself. ‘The nearer you get to the earth, the more the CO2 concentration fluctuates.’ This is because the gas accumulates near the ground during the night, while during the day it is mixed with the higher-lying layers of air under the influence of sunlight. Moreover, the concentration of CO2 is higher in the winter than in the summer. These strong fluctuations make it difficult to determine the average CO2 concentration. ‘To reduce the influence of these fluctuations we measure at 60m high at a location on the coast,’ explains Meijer. ‘This reduces the influence of CO2 released from the soil and localized CO2 increases due to the burning of fossil fuels.’

Graph of the CO2 concentration in the air during one year. The box has zoomed in on a few days. ©Science LinX.
Graph of the CO2 concentration in the air during one year. The box has zoomed in on a few days. ©Science LinX.

However, just one monitoring station is not good enough for Professor Meijer. So a few years ago he started SchoolCO2-Net, a network of schools with a CO2 meter and a weather station on the roof. The data are sent to an internet database. ‘We opted for a CO2 meter that is so accurate that the data is suitable for climate models as well as school projects. That will prove even more useful now we are expanding into the rest of Europe.’

So with SchoolCO2-Net, the Faculty is bringing science to schools!

Science on your school’s roof: the data collected by the CO2 meters are also used for climate models. ©SchoolCO2-Net.
Science on your school’s roof: the data collected by the CO2 meters are also used for climate models. ©SchoolCO2-Net.

Links

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to: Menno Keij MSc., Prof. Martin Goedhart and the Institute for Didactics and Curriculum Development (IDO). Please contact Science LinX if you should have been included in the acknowledgements.

Author

Menno Keij

Last modified:19 February 2018 2.40 p.m.
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