Supersizing Weather Stations in the Arctic

To highlight ECCC’s scientific work in the Arctic, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) social media channels have recently focused on scientists’ work in Northern Canada. This month’s Science Behind the Scenes looks into another important challenge for ECCC scientists in the Arctic – weather forecasting and research. In our fragile North, 2019 saw the Arctic continue its alarming warm-up and a massive ice melt. Arctic ice cover shrunk to its second lowest level on record (dating back 40 years). Parts of the North experienced southern-like weather including heat waves, thunderstorms, tornadoes, wildfires and winter rain. As our climate changes, weather information in the North is becoming an even greater priority.

Forecasting Weather in the Arctic

It has been a challenge for ECCC to provide the most accurate forecasts for the North because there are not as many observation stations across its vast landscape, compared to the southern regions of Canada.

To take on this challenge, ECCC developed the Canadian Arctic Weather Science (CAWS) project to investigate the requirements around a cost-effective weather observing system in the North. The project saw the transformation of two Arctic weather stations into “supersites.” These sites, in Iqaluit and Whitehorse, include a wide variety of additional autonomous instruments – used in the Arctic for the first time – to allow for better atmospheric monitoring, forecasts, and research.

The new instruments at the Arctic sites allow ECCC scientists to measure everything from cloud cover to detailed changes of wind speed, wind direction, and water vapour with height above the ground. Dr. Zen Mariani, a research scientist leading the CAWS project, says the supersites provide many essential pieces of data to help improve weather forecasts.

As Northern communities – Iqaluit in particular – quickly become transportation and economic hotspots, there is an essential need for detailed reports of atmospheric data, which are now made possible by the new instruments. Indeed, as the population grows, there are more flights, ground transportation, shipping, and Search and Rescue activities in the North than ever before, all of which require accurate forecasting.

Unique Challenges of the Arctic

Understanding the weather is more complex due to certain weather patterns that are unique to the Arctic. Mariani noted the phenomenon of “stratified wind patterns” where wind direction completely shifts as elevation increases. He says a better understanding of these patterns are important for northern search and rescue operations and air traffic.

Meeting the needs of the local Inuit population is another key consideration. For example, while temperature is something most Canadians consider vital to weather forecasts, in the North, data on visibility, ice thickness, and wind speed is more important.

“There’s a different way of looking at the weather in the North. We need to make sure new instruments provide data that is relevant to northern communities. The important thing is to really listen, absorb, and then plan and make adjustments,” says Mariani.

While the Iqaluit site has been operational for nearly five years, the CAWS project continues to evolve. In 2018, technicians installed new instruments to measure fog, snow depth, and radiation fluxes.

For now, CAWS is focusing on its two current sites, there is the potential to launch additional Arctic sites and projects in the future.

The American Meteorological Society recently highlighted the CAWS Iqaluit Project in their Bulletin. You can learn more here!

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