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Arctic Clouds May Help Lock in Warmer Weather

The recently announced Year of Polar Prediction will aim to improve weather forecasts in the Arctic region. One puzzle that researchers will be studying is the role that clouds play in the Arctic’s rapid warming.

Written by Gloria Dickie Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Clouds form over the Arctic Ocean near Spitbergen, Norway.Alfred-Wegener-Institut / René Bürgi

On May 23, Arctic scientists gathered in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located between mainland Norway and the North Pole, in preparation for the first flight of a new research campaign to determine the effect of clouds on the Arctic climate.

The Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the planet – a process known as Arctic amplification – but not much is known about what’s driving this difference.

“There’s a lot of debate about the reasons that could explain [amplification],” said Manfred Wendisch, who is leading the airborne campaign. “Why is the Arctic more sensitive? Why do we have more warming than the rest of the world? Clouds are one of the top candidates.”

The mission, which lasts six weeks and will use two aircraft and an icebreaker, is the first in a series of airborne observational missions that will unfold over the next two years as part of the first Year of Polar Prediction (YOPP). Launched in May, YOPP is an international campaign dedicated to improving predictions of Arctic and Antarctic weather, climate and ice conditions. Researchers and policymakers hope this will allow them to minimize environmental risks while taking advantage of new opportunities in the changing polar spheres.

Until now, scientists say there have been gaps in polar forecasting capacity, both at the observational and modeling level. YOPP, which involves the World Meteorological Organization, aims to fix this through missions between now and mid-2019 that will include weather balloon launches from meteorological stations, buoy deployments from research vessels, aircraft missions like Wendisch’s cloud investigation, newly installed automatic weather stations and satellite observations.

“The focus in the past has been on the tropics – the interactions between tropical processes and how they affect the mid-latitudes,” said Peter Bauer, leader of the YOPP satellite task team and deputy director of research at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. “Now, there’s new weight coming in for the high latitudes. There’s a lot to be gained by being interested in snow, sea ice, other aspects of the atmosphere and how this all interacts.”

YOPP will endeavor to both enhance existing polar observing systems, as well as gather new observations. That will allow modelers to develop representations of key polar processes, while assessing predictability of the atmosphere-cryosphere-ocean system in the Arctic and Antarctic, with a special focus on sea ice conditions.

One of the main areas of observation will be the processes that could be contributing to Arctic amplification, like soot in both the atmosphere and on the snow and ice, energy fluxes and cloud formation. Wendisch, who serves as the leader of the YOPP task team on airborne platforms, is coordinating research to quantify the contribution of these different atmospheric processes causing amplification.

The impact of clouds in the Arctic has long been difficult for scientists to understand. Low-level clouds can have both a cooling and warming effect on near-surface air temperatures around the globe. When sunlight is reflected by clouds back to space, less solar radiation reaches the surface that can be absorbed and later emitted by the ground, decreasing the near-surface air temperature. But in other situations clouds can emit downward heat radiation, warming the air below. “The cloud acts like a radiator heating a room,” said Wendisch. “You can experience this … in the early morning [when] the near-surface air temperature strongly depends on the cloud.” If the sky is clear, it’s cooler. If there are clouds, it’s warmer. In a way, clouds provide insulation.

In a place like Washington, D.C., where the sun is frequently high in the sky, the cooling effect of clouds dominates. However, in the Arctic, the warming effect of clouds might be more prominent. Scientists theorize this is the result of a combination of factors. During the polar night there is no visible sun, so perhaps clouds only play a warming role. And the reflectivity of the snowy ground and the clouds above may bounce solar radiation back and forth, leading to more absorption of solar radiation. The presence of ice in a cloud may also diminish the cloud’s cooling effect, further adding to Arctic warming.

Wendisch and his team aim to measure this effect by determining how much ice is present in a typical Arctic cloud and how strong the effect of the ice is on the warming at the surface. By performing flights above and through the clouds, as well as sailing a ship below the clouds, they’ll collect measurements on reflected solar radiation, droplet number and size and ice presence that can be used to inform new climate models.

This weather balloon base is jointly operated by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and France’s Polar Institute Paul Emile Victor on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / René Bürgi)

YOPP is unique in that it brings together observations and modeling. The International Polar Year, which ran between 2007 and 2009, also aimed to raise awareness about the Arctic’s sensitivity to climate change and fostered Arctic research, but IPY mostly focused on observations. “We need observations to initialize forecasts, but we need models to fill the gaps between observations that we don’t have,” says Bauer.

For Jackie Dawson, a Canada research chair in environmental policy who looks at the socioeconomic effects of improved polar prediction, such forecasts could be vital for the Arctic economy.

Dawson’s focus is primarily on sea ice change and what that means for Inuit communities, as well as for the shipping industry and for governments trying to figure out how to best manage an increasing number of ships traveling through the Northwest Passage. She works closely with YOPP’s modelers and observers to ensure that the research taking place will be helpful to people working on the ground. “Just because you have new technology or data doesn’t meant it’s actually useful,” she said. “We’re trying to link information creators with information providers with information users.”

One of the biggest challenges in the Arctic is lack of real-time information. Weather changes quickly in the North and the consequences can be severe. A sudden change in wind, for example, can drastically alter marine navigation, blowing sea ice into a route in a matter of minutes and causing ships to become stuck.

“Imagine that a resupply vessel has a 90-meter hose attach to shore, supplying a community with diesel fuel,” said Dawson. “If the wind comes and changes, it can rip the hose out, spilling fuel into the ocean faster than you can react. It happens more than you might think.”

These regions don’t have real-time weather data, and often lie out of satellite coverage boundaries. People used to rely on three-day-old forecasts, and now get weather information daily. But it’s still not enough.

In addition to environmental and social benefits, preventing accidents can also have huge economic benefits to industry. It cuts down on coast guard costs, oil spills don’t have to be cleaned up and ships are better protected. “In some cases we’re talking about $1 billion icebreakers,” said Dawson. “One of the companies I work with can burn $60,000 in fuel per day. If they’re stuck in ice, they’re not moving. That’s a lot of money.” And if industry cuts down on costs, she’s hopeful those savings will be passed on to consumers.

In some ways, YOPP is overdue. The Arctic is at a tipping point and more information is urgently needed. Already, cruise ships have begun making their way through dangerous Arctic waters, without solid forecasts to rely on. “We’re going to have a whole bunch of people in the polar regions without the information they need to make good and safe choices,” said Dawson.

Observations and models will slowly be funneled out of the program through a number of government agencies. Ultimately, the World Meteorological Organization Information System will house all data collected across the YOPP initiative, and make it available for operational forecasting centers to feed into their forecasts in real-time.

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