About the Earth System Research Laboratory

Our Vision

A comprehensive understanding of the earth system that informs society effectively on critical environmental issues.

Our Mission

To observe, understand, and predict the earth system through research that advances NOAA's environmental information and service from minutes to millennia on global-to-local scales.

What does ESRL do for the nation?

At NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), scientists study atmospheric and other processes that affect air quality, weather, and climate. By better understanding the dynamic Earth system, we can better understand what drives this afternoon's haze, next month's hurricanes, and next century's climate. ESRL researchers monitor the atmosphere, study the physical and chemical processes that comprise the Earth system, and integrate those findings into environmental information products. Our work improves critical weather and climate tools for the public and private sectors, from hourly forecasts to international science assessments with policy-relevant findings.

Recent Accomplishments

Arctic haze measured during ARCPAC 2009.

Arctic haze and a research airplane in Alaska, 2008. Photo by Julie Cozic, CIRES/NOAA.

Arctic Science

ESRL scientists completed several projects in the Arctic this fiscal year: a study of air chemistry that contributes to haze and unexpectedly fast warming in the region; a physics study of clouds that affect the Arctic’s temperatures; and an unmanned aerial survey of meltwater lakes on Greenland’s ice. ESRL researchers are working internationally to improve Arctic observations while extending 35 years of operations at Barrow, AK. Payoff: ESRL’s Arctic research provides timely data on a fast-changing region of global concern and improves our understanding of global climate and air quality.

CO2 Tall Towers

Boulder Atmospheric Observatory (BAO) tower.

Tower in Erie, CO. NOAA photo.

ESRL expanded its national network of tall tower sites with new measurement systems in Iowa and West Virginia. At tall towers, instruments take continuous readings of greenhouse gases and other gases that affect climate and air quality. Tall towers are part of the inter-Departmental North American Carbon Program. Payoff: The Nation is better equipped to verify natural and man-made carbon fluxes, information that will underpin national and international decisions on climate.

Soot and Aerosols

ESRL researchers study the chemicals and particles in the atmosphere, which can affect human health, visibility, cloud formation, and climate change. Recent studies reported on soot emissions by ships and the effects of North American wildfires on Arctic climate. Payoff: ESRL studies of atmospheric chemicals and particles are key to understanding regional air quality problems and climate change.

Scientific Assessments

Report cover images.

ESRL scientists helped launch the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), analyzed the effect of climate change on Colorado’s water supply, and co-authored state-of-knowledge assessments for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, on the ozone layer, abrupt climate shifts, and other issues. ESRL researchers also led “attribution” studies to determine the causes of high-impact events, such as the 2008 Midwest floods. Payoff: ESRL’s contributions to science assessments provide crucial and unbiased information to help inform local, national, and international decisions about air quality, weather, climate, and risk.

Global Modeling

Satellite image of hurricane Ike.

Hurricane Ike in 2008. NOAA image.

The new ESRL-built, advanced global model FIM (the Flow-following, finite-volume Icosahedral Model) is producing reliable weather forecasts. By the summer of 2008, experimental predictions from FIM were often as accurate as, or more accurate than, operational models. Payoff: FIM will likely be used by the National Weather Service to improve weather forecasts, including hurricane track and intensity forecasts.

The Ozone Layer

Depletion of Earth’s protective ozone layer can cause skin cancer and damage crops. ESRL scientists have monitored ozone for 40 years, noting recent signs of slow recovery—a result of the Montreal Protocol’s phasing out of many ozone-depleting chemicals. ESRL scientists and co-authors reported that because some ozone-depleters are greenhouse gases, the Protocol also slowed climate change. Their paper won a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency award in May 2008. ESRL scientists have also linked ozone and climate in Antarctica—ozone loss there has helped keep the continent cooler than predicted. As Antarctic ozone recovers, surface temperatures may rise. Payoff: ESRL’s research is a foundation for policy discussions about ozone layer protection and climate.


Science on a Sphere©, an educational tool invented by ESRL Director Dr. Alexander MacDonald, was installed in eight museums and other institutions in 2008—including the new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—bringing the total to 26. The giant, luminous sphere displays animations of scientific data, from hurricanes to climate change. Payoff: ESRL educational programs contribute to a more scientifically literate society.

Parashute drop.

Airdrop in Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo.

Did you know?

Wind forecast software developed at ESRL has improved the target accuracy of airdrop systems used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. ESRL scientists won NOAA’s 2008 Technology Transfer Award for developing a wind analysis and prediction scheme, and transferring it to a military contractor in Virginia. The system makes airdrops safer as well as more precise, by allowing aircraft to fly at higher altitudes. It has civilian uses, too, such as in aerial firefighting.

What's next for the Earth System Research Laboratory?

  • Collaborate with National Renewable Energy Laboratory on atmospheric science research that can expedite renewable energy development.
  • Work with decision makers in California, Colorado, and elsewhere to link water resource planning with weather variability and climate change data.
  • Improve hurricane and other forecasts with data collected by unmanned aerial systems and instruments on balloons (the Weather In-Situ Deployment Optimization Method (WISDOM) program).
  • Transfer forecasting technologies to public and private sectors in the United States and abroad.
  • Continue improving Carbon Tracker, an observation-based system that quantifies the sources, sinks, and dynamics of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
  • Prepare for intensive field campaigns in coastal California (air quality) and North Carolina (high-impact weather events).
  • Reach out with school, community, and online programs to engage constituents in air quality, weather, and climate science.

Research Partners

ESRL is located in Boulder, CO, and our partners include other groups in NOAA, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (University of Colorado at Boulder), the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (Colorado State University at Fort Collins), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Boulder, CO), NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security, and academic and research institutions worldwide.