Could Absolute Consensus on Global Warming Come in a Suitcase?

Emily Wilson has big plans for her portable instrument that measures carbon dioxide and methane from the ground to four miles into the sky.

NASA scientist Emily Wilson on Mauna Loa, where she set up her suitcase-sized instrument to collect data on carbon dioxide levels as far as four miles into the atmosphere. Credit: NASA

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NASA scientist Emily Wilson has big plans for a little gadget.

She has developed a suitcase-sized instrument that measures carbon dioxide and methane wafting into the atmosphere from ground level to four miles into the sky.

“I have a pretty big vision,” Wilson said.

She wants to create a worldwide network of these portable monitors to track the two potent greenhouse gases that have been identified as major contributors to global warming.

One day, she said, she hopes these instruments will be used to establish a comprehensive inventory of greenhouse gas emissions around the world.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, she acknowledged. But the 43-year-old optical physicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is determined––if not yet completely sure how––to make it happen.

“In order for there to be an absolute consensus on global warming there have to be global measurements that leave no opening for debate about what is happening,” Wilson said.

NASA scientist Emily Wilson has big plans for this suitcase-sized instrument she hopes will someday be deployed around the world to track greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: NASA

That’s where Wilson’s 30-pound miniaturized laser heterodyne radiometer (mini-LHR) comes in. Those are some pretty big words to describe an instrument that collects sunlight that is then mixed with laser light to calculate the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The instrument gathers sunlight through something similar to a telescope. Laser light is then merged into the sunlight to determine the levels of carbon dioxide and methane.

Her vision: to ultimately deploy hundreds of these instruments worldwide after initially setting up between 20 and 30 in the next two years. But her here-and-now focus is to take three of the prototypes to Alaska this summer.

Wilson and a team of researchers plan to deploy the instruments at three sites near Fairbanks to measure the carbon dioxide and methane being emitted from thawing permafrost.

Permafrost is permanently frozen soil that makes up an estimated 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. It contains organic carbon deposits that have been sealed beneath the surface for as long as 10,000 years.

Wilson said she sees this experiment as a kind of scientific two-fer. The first is another field test of her instrument; this is the sixth version of the device she began developing in 2009. The second goal is to determine concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide emitted during the seasonal ground thaw. That thawing has led to concerns that significant greenhouse-gas emissions are being discharged into the atmosphere.

With global temperature rising, the release of these gases from permafrost is increasing because more of the permafrost is thawing. That, in turn, accelerates the release of more gas, which leads to more warming.

In scientific terms, it’s called amplifying.

“Call it a snowball effect––there you go,” Wilson said.

But it’s serious business.

“We have to understand the sources and amounts of carbon dioxide and methane,” she said. “Once we have that understanding we can confront the consequences…If you don’t acknowledge global warming and its causes, then you are not planning for the consequences or seeking solutions.”

Losing permafrost also leaves the land vulnerable to erosion and lost waterways and threatens certain plant species.

The instrument, which Wilson estimates has cost $200,000 to develop using off-the-shelf technology, is designed to detect methane and carbon dioxide as it rises into the atmosphere. It’s solar powered because, as Wilson said, there is no need to add any more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by using a generator.

Wilson said the data collected in Alaska will contribute to NASA’s ongoing efforts to build a model used to simulate emissions in the future, as well as from the past.

For decades, NASA has been conducting Earth science research, in addition to leading space missions.

Wilson, who is constantly hustling NASA funding to keep her suitcase instrument on the go, said she’s confident the instrument will become an invaluable tool in assessing global warming.

 She has deployed it near a California dairy farm to record methane emissions from “slurry pits.” Or, as Wilson described it, a big hole filled with cow poo.

She has also set it up in Hawaii near the Mauna Loa site where Charles Keeling became the first scientist to make frequent measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It’s a venerated place for Wilson because of the momentous science conducted by Keeling, which established a historic record showing a steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere beginning in 1958.

“The instrument has proven the technology is viable,” Wilson said.  “Now we have to prove that it can play a part in developing a global picture of global warming.”

Currently, there are 22 ground-based sites that measure the two greenhouse gases rising into the atmosphere, Wilson said. That provides only a snapshot of what’s occurring.

Wilson has obtained a patent for the instrument and would like NASA to work with a commercial partner to produce enough of the instruments for use by scientists across the globe.

In the end, Wilson said, she hopes her compact instrument will produce data that will crush the doubters in the climate change debate.

“By having well-documented global measurements of these greenhouse gases we can build an irrefutable case of global warming,” she said.

NASA video of Wilson talking about the instrument: