Research initiative: Year of Polar Prediction

A “weather forecast” for the Arctic

No-one can say for sure whether the next few days will be snowy or sunny at the North Pole: the weather forecast for the Arctic is far less reliable than for other parts of the world, where an extensive grid of automatic weather stations regularly transmits real-time data on barometric pressure, temperature and wind to the weather services scattered around the globe. Today there's still very little data to be found at the Earth's poles. An international research initiative spearheaded by the AWI wants to change that, and has declared the Year of Polar Prediction, which will continue from mid-2017 to mid-2019.

Bremerhaven isn’t much farther from the Arctic than from the Mediterranean, so it hardly comes as a surprise that the weather at the North Pole also affects weather conditions in Germany. For example, researchers hypothesize that the warming of polar air masses and the retreat of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean are currently responsible for a change in global weather and climatic activity: while changes in the polar atmosphere cause colder winters in North America, Europe and Eastern Asia, summertime droughts and heat waves will soon also become more common.


Climate change is impacting the Arctic

In addition, rising temperatures and dwindling sea ice are affecting the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who have always been able to rely on their traditional forecasting practices. But above all, the climatic shift has opened the door for the commercial exploitation of the Arctic. Thanks to changes in the global climate, the polar reaches will be more heavily frequented in the future. With less sea ice in the summer months, shipping in the Arctic will intensify considerably in the years to come. Freight forwarders will use the summertime shortcut through the Arctic to transport goods faster, while tourism companies will offer more cruises to the Antarctic, giving more and more vacationers the chance to fulfil their dream of standing at arm’s length from a trumpeting colony of penguins just once in their lives. In order to protect the largely untouched polar regions from potential shipwrecks and oil spills, reliable short-and middle-term forecasts on the weather and sea-ice conditions are called for.


Weather stations: The poles have been overlooked

Nevertheless, to date it’s proved extremely difficult to accurately predict these conditions in the central regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. This is partly due to their location – far from densely populated areas, where weather observations have a long history. Though the network of automatic weather stations in the populated regions of the Earth has been significantly expanded since the early 20th century, the polar regions – which are in complete darkness six months of the year and where operating automatic weather stations is a much more demanding undertaking – have remained largely overlooked. Granted, the first weather stations in the Arctic were set up during the first International Polar Year 1882–1883 and the first automatic weather radio equipment and weather buoys were installed in 1940; yet the recording stations currently in place still aren’t sufficient to deliver reliable weather forecasts for the poles.

A scientific year of polar prediction

In an effort to address these gaps in the predictive capacities for the polar regions, in 2013 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) launched a long-term project to improve forecasting (the Polar Prediction Project). In the context of the project, international researchers from a broad range of fields are working together with the operational forecasting centres. Further, the period from mid-2017 to mid-2019 will mark the official Year of Polar Prediction – which will be characterised by simultaneous measuring campaigns in the Arctic and Antarctic, particularly during the northern and southern summer periods, the goal being to increase the number of observations for various environmental factors, which will in turn help to develop more accurate models, simulations, and weather and sea-ice forecasts. The rationale: creating reliable weather and climate forecasting models means first gathering extensive data on the weather, sea ice, and the conditions at sea and on land. In turn, this data is compared with the calculations that will later serve as the basis for a weather forecast, so as to ensure the models actually deliver dependable prognoses.


The AWI will coordinate radiosonde measurements in the polar regions

The Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven will assume a central role in the Year of Polar Prediction by hosting the International Coordination Office for Polar Prediction, which will direct the planning and organisation of the two-year initiative. For example, in the winter and summer of 2018, arctic research stations and vessels will launch up to four radiosondes a day – instruments that rise up to 35 km with the help of a gas balloon, measuring air temperature and pressure, humidity and a range of further atmospheric parameters as they climb. These measurements, together with the data recorded by automatic weather stations, water and ice buoys, will be simultaneously fed into the Global Telecommunication System (GTS), where researchers and weather centres can use them to develop new weather models and forecasts. Accordingly, the Year of Polar Prediction will do much more than “just” greatly improving weather and climate models for the higher latitudes. After all, no matter whether in the polar regions or in the tropics – reliable forecasts are indispensable wherever people live, work…or travel to see a trumpeting colony of penguins.

Kirstin Werner