State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Dealing with Mother Nature

Code Charlie event this week in Thule, Greenland (photo credit E. Renaud, Sanders)

Working in the poles we are constantly reminded of our dependence on meteorology, and this project has dealt us a variety of different weather considerations. The most obvious is the weather we experience at the base. Storm season in Thule lasts from the 15th of September to the 14th of May; in other words encompassing fall, winter and most of spring! “Bad” weather is classified by temperature, wind speed and visibility, with the “storm condition” determining whether we can go outside alone, if we need to take a “buddy” or if we are allowed outside at all. Obviously this also affects whether the plane can take off for a day’s work.

We’ve had some weather passing through since last Monday, and have twice been in storm condition ‘Charlie’, where we are restricted to our dorms, or the hangar if we are on watch. We have meal ready-to-eat (MREs) on the ready for these occasions since the cafeteria will be inaccessible. This condition can last from hours to days. We have been fortunate with only quick ‘blow throughs’ and able to fit in a couple of short flights when conditions improved. I have plotted the air pressure for the last few days and it shows the two episodes of low pressure, which resulted in the bad weather passing over, and the flight we managed to squeeze in between the storms.

Air Pressure: Noon May 2nd through 7PM May 5th (compiled by K. Tinto, LDEO)

The second type of weather we have had to manage is conditions over the survey targets. John Sonntag from NASA/ATM gives us a briefing each night, showing weather models of the country. We are particularly interested in where there is cloud cover – since we want a clear view of the ice for the laser altimetry and for the DMS photo system. We also care about wind – turbulence can make it difficult for the pilots to fly the grid while keeping the equipment on target, and of course difficult for the passengers! Flight plans are given priorities – low, medium and high, and by balancing the weather forecast with the mission priorities John and Michael Studinger (the project scientist) have to figure out what our best target will be each day.

Thule runway being cleared for takeoff for upcoming flight (J. Yungel, NASA)

Finally, there is magnetic weather. Magnetic weather does not affect the atmospheric weather so most of us are not even aware of it, however it does affect the magnetic survey, and if lively enough it can even affect communications. Magnetic weather is variability in the earth’s magnetic field, and it is driven by activity on the sun, or solar flares. The Earth’s magnetic field varies from the equator to the poles with measures of approximately 30,000 nT near the equator to 60,000 nT (nanotesla) at the poles. Most of this field is from the Earth’s outer core but a small 1 to 2 % is the external field of solar interactions. It is this small external field that causes magnetic storms that last anywhere from six hours to several days. Impacts of magnetic storms are often only 50-300 nT, which might seem minor, but the effect on our instruments is important since it must be adjusted for.

Two 12 hour plots of our magnetic base station. The top plot is April 16th, showing the small variation on a quiet day, the bottom is May 3rd, showing a mild magnetic storm with reading variations ranging over 200 nT (compiled by B. Burton, USGS)

There was a magnetic storm this weekend, but as the airport was closed for the weekend the plane wasn’t flying so we didn’t need to adjust for it. Had we still been in Kangerlussuaq it would have given us a good show of the northern lights. In Thule we are much further north and here the sun hasn’t set since the 16th of April! so no night-sky phenomena for us. The positive is the midnight sun works well for the night watch.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Erik Conte
Erik Conte
11 years ago

It is my dream to go and work on ones of the poles. I hope I wont be late because I read about a study held at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado
which estimates that until 2040 the who ice will melt in the summer time.Hope it wont happen.
Going to the pole is a life-time adventure.Its fascinating!