“Ryanair doesn’t fly to the Arctic yet”

The Year of Polar Prediction officially began in May. Through mid 2019, there will be increased measurements of the weather, sea ice and oceans in order to improve environmental forecasts in the Arctic and Antarctic. Climate scientist Thomas Jung is responsible for coordinating and implementing the Year of Polar Prediction. In this interview, he talks about how the weather and climate at the Earth’s poles is changing, how accurately weather and sea-ice conditions can be predicted today, and which commercial usage interests could arise in a changing Arctic.

Why are forecasts in the polar regions so important and do they really need to be improved?

We’re talking about an extremely harsh environment, where the weather and sea ice have a significant effect on the people who live or work there. Anyone planning activities here and wishing to avoid extreme events like storms needs to know what to expect. As a matter of fact, forecasts for the Arctic and Antarctic haven’t played a particularly important role. In contrast to weather predictions for the mid latitudes, there’s a gaping hole when it comes to the polar regions. To date, the indigenous peoples have been able to use traditional forecasting methods to predict weather developments and sea-ice conditions for the next day. But since the climate system is now changing, these traditions, based on past experience, appear to be losing their validity. 

What does the future look like for the Arctic?

We know that the ice will retreat: it will become thinner and there will be less of it. Air temperatures will rise – in some cases, significantly. As a result, the permafrost ground will thaw and the coasts will erode more heavily. This will particularly be a problem in areas where settlements and houses have been built on permafrost. Here we’re talking about the effects of what’s referred to as the “Arctic amplification” of climate change: the Arctic is warming nearly three times as fast as other regions of the Earth. The environmental changes that lie ahead for the Arctic will be more pronounced than those in Bremerhaven, for example. What’s more, in the polar regions we also expect to see changes resulting from the ice caps melting and the accompanying rise in sea level.

Environmental changes will also entail socioeconomic changes in the Arctic...

Of course, there are interests in using the Arctic for commercial purposes: for tourism, for example. A trip to the Arctic, a region that’s not easily accessible, is one of the world’s few remaining adventures. As far as I know, Ryanair doesn’t fly to the Arctic yet.

What about shipping?

Shipping will also play a greater role in the future. Travelling from Europe to Asia via the Arctic is much shorter. But even in the future, this will only be seasonally possible – in 2050, normal ships still won’t be able to cross the Arctic in winter. Nevertheless, we can expect more cruise and container ships in the Arctic. When it comes to fishery, there will be a lot of changes, too. If the “Atlantification” of the Arctic continues, with the ice edge retreating ever further north, the fishing fleets will have to adapt accordingly. In order to understand and manage all these activities and changes, we need good forecasts.

Will only the weather in the Arctic change, or will Central Europe also be affected?

I don’t think we can offer a satisfactory answer to that yet. It’s striking that the rapid retreat of the Arctic sea ice since the year 2000 has coincided with more frequent cold winters in Europe in the early years of the 21st century. But, without further evidence, we can’t rule out that it’s just a coincidence. The EU project APPLICATE, which we’re coordinating here at the Alfred Wegener Institute as part of the Horizon2020 Programme, aims to provide some answers to that. When it comes to Western Europe, I don’t think the influence will be so marked. Our weather here in Europe is largely influenced by what happens in the North Atlantic and over North America; that’s where our weather is “cooked up”. The weather at the poles, however, appears to have a much greater effect on regions like Eurasia, China, Japan, Canada and North America. While the situation is different when you look at long-term climate developments: conceivably, the changes in the Arctic might alter the ocean circulation over the North Atlantic, which would have a direct effect on Europe. There’s still quite a lot of research to be done.

How accurately can we currently predict the weather and sea-ice conditions in the polar regions?

That depends on what you’re looking at! Sea-ice deformation, for example, can only be predicted for a few days, while sea-ice thickness in some areas of the Arctic can be predicted for a few weeks to several months, and deep-sea changes for months or even years. The limits of forecasting are largely shaped by the atmosphere. Everything that is directly driven by the atmospheric weather – like snow storms or the formation of channels in the sea ice, known as leads – can only be predicted a few days in advance. Ice itself is sluggish in comparison. It has a memory, so to speak. A storm isn’t enough to change a thick sea-ice layer overnight, so we can forecast certain ice conditions for longer time frames. Just how many months ahead the annual Arctic minimal ice extent in September can be predicted is something that we are currently investigating. 

How can I find out whether there’s going to be a storm at the North Pole tomorrow?

I don’t believe that information is readily available. You probably won’t find “North Pole” on any weather app – at least not on the one I have from the Deutscher Wetterdienst. 

Will this situation change with the Year of Polar Prediction? Will I be able to download a daily weather report for the Arctic from the Deutscher Wetterdienst website at some point?

In theory, yes! I hope that someday we’ll have easily accessible forecasts for the sea-ice conditions in the Arctic, showing how they will change in the next few hours or possibly weeks. Most of the stakeholders in the Arctic and Antarctic need information for a variety of time periods: where exactly am I going to and can I work there at the moment? How should I plan the next few weeks? To do so, you need to know what is going to happen when.

How is the Year of Polar Prediction related to the International Polar Year? 

During the International Polar Year, there were several topics, and the projects in each topic were very well coordinated. But coordinating the overall International Polar Year (IPY) was probably more difficult, because aspects from more disciplines were involved, ranging from socioeconomic issues to geosciences and atmospheric physics. The Year of Polar Prediction, or YOPP for short, is more thematically focused – it’s all about improving weather and climate forecasts in the polar regions. In principle, YOPP can be seen as a legacy or follow-up project to the IPY. When the IPY ended in the late 2000s, the changes in the Arctic were particularly dramatic, and the research community had to consider the research topics in which parts of the IPY should be continued – that was when the focus shifted to polar forecasts.

In concrete terms, what will occur during the Year of Polar Prediction?

On the one hand, enhanced measurements will be taken so that we can, for example, better understand which processes are taking place in the atmospheric boundary layer. This knowledge will then be used to create better models and more accurate predictions. As part of YOPP, various field campaigns will investigate this issue. In addition, as far as possible we will attempt to close the gaps in the observing systems in the Arctic and Antarctic over a certain time period. For instance, additional radiosondes, weather stations and buoys will be deployed to measure the atmosphere, sea ice and ocean. These Special Observing Periods as we call them will be taking place from February to March and from July to September 2018 in the Arctic, and from mid-November 2018 to mid-February 2019 in the Antarctic. Modellers can use the data collected during YOPP for their experiments to identify whether additional measurements – and if so, which ones – actually improve the predictions both in the Arctic and in our latitudes. 

Do we really need all these extra measurements, which are probably very expensive? Isn’t it enough to have only a few measurements, but ones that are critical and affordable, to make reliable predictions?

Further developing the observing systems, collecting the data, and making appropriate recommendations about what needs to be done and is financially feasible are the main tasks of the modelling activities that will take place as part of the Year of Polar Prediction. But there are additional questions that can be investigated with the help of modelling efforts during the Year of Polar Prediction: how well can we currently predict the sea-ice extent, e.g. in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard, and what can we use the improved models for? There will be numerous predictability studies – tests of which additional measurements help us, and how much. Another important aspect is the development of what is known as data assimilation: bringing together observations and models. The coupled data assimilation for the atmosphere, sea ice, ocean and land is a challenge that we will have to address as part of YOPP. 

What about the “people aspect” in the Year of Polar Prediction?

Though the main focus is on scientific activities, YOPP will also address social science and economic aspects. Socioeconomic studies will be conducted in order to assess the exact value of improved predictions for various stakeholders in the Arctic. Here is a definite need for more research.

What is the concrete value of the Year of Polar Prediction? After all, the World Meteorological Organization – WMO for short – intended the project to have a certain practical relevance.

The WMO represents the weather and climate prediction centres, the institutions responsible for predictions concerning environmental conditions. Having the WMO on board as a partner means we have the support of prediction centres like Environment and Climate Change Canada, the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) or the Meteorological Institute in Norway. At the same time, we can also draw on their resources, ensuring that knowledge is transferred to the users of improved predictions. After all, the weather prediction centres serve a large customer base, or they provide the raw data to companies, which in turn deliver them to customers. If ECMWF can predict sea-ice conditions – something they are actively working on at the moment – certain stakeholders in the polar regions will base their decisions on ECMWF products.

What’s your own role in the Year of Polar Prediction?

Polar predictions are a topic that interests a lot of people here in Europe, in North America, in Russia and also in China and in the Southern Hemisphere. When it comes to international activities, it’s important that we avoid two groups doing the same work twice – which means we have to coordinate them. For example, in the field of modelling, how can we work together to address specific questions like uncertainties in the models? An individual country can’t do this alone, nor can the Alfred Wegener Institute. Instead, we need international partners, who we can consult with. It doesn’t help anyone if ten buoys are deployed by ten different institutes in the same square kilometre of the ocean. Here we need a certain degree of agreement. We have to meet, talk to each other, plan together and promote what we do. And this I see as my main task. As coordinator of the Year of Polar Prediction, I’m responsible for ensuring that this works. I have the support of a steering group, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Coordination Office here at the Alfred Wegener Institute. And of course, I get a great deal of support from all those who have a shared interest in the Year of Polar Prediction.

How will we know whether the Year of Polar Prediction has been a success?

In the course of coordination and planning, we also have to discuss how we can measure the project’s success. There are hundreds, thousands of things we could do. But where do we set our priorities so that we generate the greatest possible value? In our meetings we don’t focus as much on the latest research findings; instead we set the priorities for making YOPP a success. For example, we can measure the success on the basis of whether, for particular time periods, we manage to arrive at recommendations for the observation systems in the Arctic and Antarctic that will enable us to measurably improve forecasts – in the polar regions and in the mid latitudes alike. 

The interview was conducted by Kirstin Werner