Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS): An Infrastructure to Monitor the European Greenhouse Gas Balance

Bert Gielen, Maarten Op de Beeck, Denis Loustau,

Reinhart Ceulemans, Armin Jordan, and Dario Papale

Introduction: Identify the Challenges

Climate change is one of the most challenging problems that humanity has to cope with in the coming decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2013) has concluded that the observed rise in global temperature is very likely due to increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, caused by anthropogenic emissions. These increased concentrations of CO2 and CH4, which exceed by far the natural range observed over the last 650,000 years, and its impact on the global biogeochemical cycles are a major driving force of current and future climate change. The current levels of CO2 have increased by 40% from preindustrial times (Jackson et al., 2016). Moreover, the current atmospheric levels of CH4 are nearly two and a half times the preindustrial value. The main sources of anthropogenic CH4 emissions are fossil fuel combustion and modifications of global vegetation through land use change, in particular deforestation. Terrestrial vegetation and oceans absorb together about half of the yearly anthropogenic emissions (Le Quere et al., 2009). The question is whether these sinks will be persistent in the future, especially under changing climatic conditions and under increased human pressure. At the current atmospheric level of CH4, the natural oxidizing power of the atmosphere removes almost all the CH4 emitted by human activities and natural sources, but increased human activities are expected to increase emissions even further and result in elevated CH4 concentrations in the atmosphere (Kirschke et al., 2013).

Enhanced understanding of the driving forces of climate change and its impact on the global biogeochemical cycles requires full quantification of the GHG sources and sinks and their evolution. Regional GHG flux patterns, tipping points, and vulnerabilities can be assessed by long-term, high-precision observations in the atmosphere and at the ocean and land surface. During the last decades, many European projects have been set up to study the terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric GHG budgets. It became, however, clear that the setup of an infrastructure with a long lifetime is essential to ensure high-precision measurements of the GHG balance of Europe and became inevitable to acquire more insight in the interaction between climate change and the geochemical cycles.

After an initial phase of preparation, the European Commission, in November 2015, recognized the Integrated Carbon Observation System European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ICOS ERIC). This legal framework had been established to manage the distributed ICOS research infrastructure (ICOS RI) ( with a minimum expected lifetime of 20 years (Figure 20.1).


Schematic representation of the ICOS organizational structures with the four central facilities and the three station networks. ERIC, European Research Infrastructure Consortium.

ICOS aims

  • 1. To provide long-term observations required to understand the present state and predict future behavior of the global carbon cycle and GHG emissions.
  • 2. To monitor and assess the effectiveness of GHG mitigation activities on atmospheric composition levels, including attribution of sources and sinks by region and sector.
  • 3. To serve the research community with high-quality data products to unravel the global geochemical cycles.
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