August 2000

Depot for data

Environmental researchers all over the world look to ORNL’s storehouses of scientific data—free of charge

They may be simply stashes of numbers to some, but to researchers they are gold in the mine. The Environmental Sciences Division is home to three data centers that store and distribute valuable information to environmental researchers all over the world.

Last fiscal year nearly 700,000 data “products” were accessed through the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Archive and the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. ARM and CDIAC are supported by DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research. NASA supports the Data Acquisition and Archive Center, or DAAC.

The centers’ Web sites are visited continuously. The staff that maintain this information trove are relatively few.

We’re a quiet group,” says ESD’s Paul Kanciruk, who heads ESD’s Environmental Data Systems Program. “But we have a tremendous impact in terms of products that go out.”

In fact, the centers, which consume terabytes of computer storage space, are relied upon by researchers around the globe for data that would be impossible to retrieve otherwise. Kanciruk says 40 percent of the centers’ customers are international customers.

And with steady support from OBER, NASA and the scientific community, plus input from researchers, the centers should be reliable keepers of environmental statistics for years to come.

This tower is part of the multiagency
Ameriflux project to measure changes in
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Data
from this and countless other environmental
experiments are held at ORNL’s Carbon
Dioxide Information Analysis Center.

The Lab’s most venerable data center, operating since 1982, is CDIAC, which stores information on the presence and effects of carbon dioxide in the environment.

Kanciruk says that scientists who want to study a topic such as how global warming might change coastlines because of polar ice melt might rely on CDIAC’s data bases to spot trends. One important aspect of data centers such as CDIAC, Kanciruk says, is that the data are free to researchers.

“One of the neatest experiences I’ve had was when I was visiting Russia for the National Academy of Sciences and walked up on two students opening a package from CDIAC. They could have never afforded it even if the charge was nomimal, and they were very excited to receive it,” he recalls.

“It means a lot to the global community. These data are already paid for, not just for those at Harvard, but for a poor graduate student in Brazil or Russia. And the data are useless until somebody analyzes them.”

International users include the United Nations and the International Council of Scientific Unions (CDIAC includes a World Data Center for Atmospheric Trace Gases). Users in the United States include DOE, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council.

The center maintains data sets that range from ice-core data going back 420,000 years to trends on the atmospheric effects of fossil-fuel burning in recent decades. Robert Cushman manages the center.

Policymakers also rely on these centers from time to time. Former President George Bush used CDIAC’s data during discussions at the Chantilly environmental meeting of about a decade ago. Kanciruk says that Vice President Al Gore’s office is a frequent CDIAC “customer.” He recalled that Gore’s office, while preparing a policy speech, once asked the center what effect raising speed limits would have on carbon dioxide emissions. (The center’s answer was “very little.”)


The ARM Archive was established in 1989 by OBER as a concept, says Kanciruk, to provide near-real-time measurements of atmospheric parameters to researchers.

The archive, managed by Raymond McCord, receives and manages the data and information generated during the course of the ARM project and distributes the data and additional information to scientists, who then tailor the information to their project needs.

The World-Wide Web serves as the engine for the ARM Archive, and the center’s staff of about half a dozen handle about 50,000 files a month sent from instruments in the field. The archive, Kanciruk notes, is a big user of computing storage space (it currently stores approximately nine terabytes of data) and the operation is highly automated. The ARM Archive, jointly operates with the Center for Computational Sciences ORNL’s version of the R&D 100-winning High Performance Storage Center.

ARM has 800 registered users—representing 75 universities, 25 foreign countries and seven federal agencies—and supplies users with 600,000 data products a year. In its decade of existence the archive has distributed nearly two million data files.

“The program was designed for 10 years,” Kanciruk says. “We’ve got the potential for 10 more years of sponsorship. These data will be useful long after the ARM Archive program ends.”


NASA, in addition to its space missions, also funds ground-based projects. ORNL Reporter described the DAAC’s role in the space agency’s Terra project in February. Images from instruments on the orbiting satellite will be compared with actual conditions on the ground reported to the DAAC from field scientists.

ORNL’s reputation as a keeper of scientific data led NASA to store its Earth Science Enterprise data at the Lab. With access to computer resources and the Internet, the DAAC can provide NASA with an ongoing and steadily updating and improving base of facts to calibrate its space-based instruments.

The DAAC supports NASA’s
Terra satellite.
The DAAC received kudos for its development of the Mercury system, a distributed data access system. The center, managed by Larry Voorhees, has more than 1,500 customers (40 percent are international) and expects to distribute 10,000 data products this year.

“We’re more than a data archive; we’re designing data centers to run in real-time, rather than only when a project is finished,” Kanciruk says.

Kanciruk says much of the credit for the success of ESD’s data centers goes to DOE, for its longstanding support. CDIAC’s origins, for instance, go back nearly 20 years—a lifetime in terms of programs. Over the years the programs have weathered new directions and embraced new technologies. The Internet, for instance, came along after CDIAC and the ARM Archive, but the advances in information technology have resulted in a flowering of data generation and a boom in the centers’ work and demand.

The data the researchers from all over the world report now will be studied in the future by researchers who need only the means to ask for them, or even to download them.

“These are data you can’t reproduce. You can’t go back and recreate these data. They have a time stamp on them,” Kanciruk says.

“DOE has seen lots of changes in emphasis over the years, but they’ve been rock steady with these centers. It’s a tribute to DOE that they’ve been so committed to providing data as a resource, free of charge, to the scientific community.”—B.C.


[ ORNL Reporter Home | ORNL Home | Comments ]