Real Science in Real Time

Carbon Monitoring   Carbon Monitoring   Carbon Monitoring

Recent studies, as outlined in this article, continue to show the alarming consequences of rising levels of carbon in our atmosphere. A new exhibit display at Pacific Science Center demonstrates real-time measurements of CO₂ levels in Seattle.

In an effort to promote the public's understanding of atmospheric CO₂ in an urban setting, Pacific Science Center has partnered with the Space Needle and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to install a carbon dioxide sensor at the top of the Space Needle that measures the amount of CO₂ in the lower Queen Anne, Seattle Center area.

The sensor measures atmospheric CO₂ on the Space Needle at the 300 foot level and at the very top of the tower every 5 minutes and streams the information to the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) where the data are processed in real time and sent directly to a monitoring station at Pacific Science Center. The interactive display allows guests to examine the latest data showing the patterns of CO₂ variations in our atmosphere on time scales ranging from minutes to months.

"Cities are local hotspots for emissions resulting from human activities," said Dr. Christopher Sabine, Supervisory Oceanographer at NOAA/PMEL. Dr. Sabine led the group that installed the sensor. "CO₂ concentrations over the city are higher and much more variable than the clean atmospheric CO₂ concentrations collected from our mooring or shipboard measurements made off the Washington coast."

This research is part of a pilot for a larger program that would create a network of monitors like the one on the Space Needle, throughout our region. With a network of sensors the regional CO₂ patterns can begin to be mapped providing insight into where CO₂ is being released to the atmosphere and where CO₂ is being absorbed from the atmosphere.

"These measurements are so timely and important. They are one of the first series of CO₂ measurements obtained in an urban setting, and help us to see for ourselves how CO₂ levels vary in the area. For example, we can see higher CO₂ releases associated with the morning and evening commutes," said Dr. Ellen Lettvin, Vice President for Science and Education for Pacific Science Center. "As policies are developed and implemented that require us to reduce our production of CO₂, this system will be really valuable, as it will enable policymakers and citizens alike to see the impact of these policies."

The availability of these atmospheric CO₂ measurements is timely as NOAA is also releasing an alarming new report about ocean acidification (which occurs when CO₂ in the atmosphere reacts with water) in Puget Sound. To help explain the implications of the variety of new carbon research coming out in our area, Pacific Science Center also recently developed an activity cart called "Sinks and Sources." This activity cart, funded through NOAA, examines materials and activities that produce and absorb carbon. If something absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits, it is known as a carbon sink. If it emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, it is known as carbon source.

To complement the "Sinks and Sources" activity cart, Science Center educators are also developing a live science demonstration to provide guests insight about how living things produce carbon and how burning of fossil fuels impacts carbon dioxide levels locally. With interactives and hands-on activities, the demonstration augments the carbon monitoring exhibit station to help guests better understand how CO₂ affects our global health and impacts our oceans.

These marine and atmospheric measurements are part of an expanding effort to understand carbon cycling in the region. The University of Washington and NOAA are conducting collaborative studies to determine how the low pH waters will affect the development and survival of larval, juvenile, and adult stages of the marine organisms that live there.

Through dialogue and engagement, the Science Center is building stronger roots in the community by working with universities and research institutions to act as a portal, providing the public direct access to the very current and relevant scientific research taking place in the area. As part of that effort, the Science Center is a partner in Around the Americas, a recently completed 13-month voyage by sailboat around both North and South America to raise awareness of the health of our oceans. Pacific Science Center staff developed curricula and activities that illustrate the effects of ocean acidification, which will likely have significant adverse effects on marine ecosystems.

"Until only a few years ago, many considered it to be an advantage that the oceans could absorb atmospheric CO₂. Now we realize that chemical reactions between CO₂ and sea water produce caustic conditions that may make the oceans inhospitable to many life forms, which may not be reversible," added Lettvin.

This curricula, for both formal and informal educators of grades K-8, is available for free download at

As part of the overall effort to promote the public's awareness and to gain information on issues of concern to the Pacific Northwest, such as ocean acidification, hypoxia (low oxygen concentrations), algal blooms, and climate change, the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington (APL-UW) and the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) have announced the launch of an ocean observing array located off the outer coast of Washington near La Push. Learn More

Carbon Emissions In King County

by Bryce Seidl, President & CEO

As a not-for-profit science education institution, it is a priority of ours to help educate our community about the most relevant issues of our time, from a science perspective. Few issues are more relevant and timely than environmental health and global climate change. If you've passed by Pacific Science Center lately, on the Denny Way side, you may have noticed a sign that shows estimated carbon emissions (expressed in equivalent metric tons of Carbon Dioxide) for King County. The electronic counter is constantly increasing, telling just part of the story of how we, locally, are intricately tied to this global issue. The sign resets to zero on January 1 of each year, and increases by one metric ton every 1.37 seconds. Our emission rate is based on a 2003 King County study which found the county emits nearly 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. I hope you will take a look the next time you drive by or visit Pacific Science Center. Learn more about the science of climate change and take a moment to consider how you can help play a role in reducing emissions. At Pacific Science Center, we are committed to doing what we can to make a positive impact and it all begins with education. We are grateful for a grant from The Mark Torrance Foundation for making this project possible.