State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Switchyard Project: It’s all about the weather

Our daily routine usually starts around 6.30 a.m. with checking satellite pictures of the area around Alert up to the North Pole. Since weather forecasts virtually don’t exist here, satellite pictures are the only reliable way for us to see what the weather is like and will be like in the next few hours in the area where we want to take samples.

Having no clouds, no fog and low temperatures above the ice is certainly the perfect set of conditions that we are looking for. Since these conditions are rarely found everywhere in our area of operation, we have to pick spots where we think reasonably good conditions are likely to persist until we can get there with our planes.

Good weather conditions: clear sky, no fog and only a few high clouds

To make it even more complicated, it’s not just about the weather above the ice. The planes also have to come back to Alert again and need to have a reasonable amount of visibility to be able to land on the icy and snowy runway.

One can only imagine what kind of a pilot one has to be to fly in the arctic regions and land on sea-ice under weather conditions as we have experienced already – fog above the ice and clouds covering the area with very low visibility. They have to be very experienced in judging the condition of the sea-ice, whether or not it is thick enough to land on (but not too thick), and whether or not there are any cracks in the ice or bumps underneath the snow cover. Therefore, good weather and visibility is one of the most important and most limiting factors of our operation here in Alert.

Bad weather conditions: Although the sky is clear, the sea-ice is covered with fog so we can't see the ice at all.

In that period when arctic winter has come to its end and arctic summer is starting, the environmental conditions are changing fast. Till a few weeks ago, Alert was in the grip of very low temperatures of about -30 degrees C (-22 F). We arrived a week ago at -20 degrees C (-4 F) and are currently seeing temperatures around -10 degrees C (14 F). With increasing temperature, ice and snow are melting, and the sea-ice cover is breaking open. Open water without ice coverage releases a lot of moisture into the atmosphere, which will become eventually visible as fog and clouds. The further we move into the season, the more days with bad weather we probably will experience.

However, so far the weather has been great, and we could fly out for most of the time. Our team from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is as I’m writing this at the North Pole, our furthest sampling station away from Alert.

Bad weather for flying but very very beautiful to watch.

Number of sampled stations overall:


UW: 10

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