11 August, 2022

Scientists are flying research aircraft through the heart of Arctic storms this summer to better understand how weather systems are affecting polar sea ice.

Arctic cyclones are the main type of hazardous weather that affect the polar environment during summer. They can impact sea ice movement and trigger rapid ice loss, effects which themselves influence the development of cyclones.

Two aircraft – one a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Twin Otter – are flying around 60 missions to study Arctic summer cyclones for the first time. This will create the most detailed physical picture yet of how the ice and ocean interact with the atmosphere above, in order to better simulate this in weather and climate prediction models.

A plane flying in the air.
BAS Twin Otter aircraft are equipped to collect atmospheric data to help understand climate change

As a result of global warming, sea ice is becoming thinner across large areas of the Arctic Ocean in summer, year on year. This means that winds can move the ice more easily, which in turn can influence weather systems. This makes predicting changes to the Arctic environment difficult in both the short and long term.

The dramatic changes in Arctic ice are expected to become increasingly important for global climate, making it an urgent problem for study.

Project lead Professor John Methven, an atmospheric dynamics researcher at the University of Reading, says:

“Arctic cyclones are understood far less than those in temperate regions, making them even harder to predict. This project will examine Arctic summertime cyclones from above, below and right in their midst. It will shed light on the relationship between sea ice and the atmosphere above, which will provide invaluable data to improve understanding of how climate change is affecting this globally important region.”

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth. Climate change has changed sea ice dramatically, making ice thinner and breaking it up, making it more susceptible to winds and storms. Arctic summertime cyclones can measure thousands of kilometres in diameter and can persist for several days or weeks, often moving south outside the Arctic circle.

Ice on water in a melt pond
Temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth. Photo credit: Julienne Stroeve

Flights are taking place between 27 July to 24 August. A forecast for strong northerly winds during the first week, temporarily slowing sea ice retreat due to recent heat waves in the region, have provided ideal conditions for the first flights.

A team of UK scientists are flying in a BAS Twin Otter plane based from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, the most northerly town on Earth. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is funding the project team from the University of Reading, University of East Anglia, National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.

Rod Arnold, Head of the Air Unit at BAS, says:

“We are delighted to be supporting this research with our scientific and logistics expertise. It is essential that we provide the capability for researchers to study weather systems up close to understand our changing climate and the effect that it is having on the environment. Our Twin Otter aircraft and the experience of the crews in conducting flights supporting polar airborne science and logistics enable us to do this as safely and efficiently as possible in these missions.”

These low-level flights are taking place over the ocean and sea ice, and particularly over areas where sea ice is breaking up. They are simultaneously monitoring turbulence, heat and moisture in the lower atmosphere and taking detailed measurements of physical properties of the sea ice such as surface height, roughness and temperature.

Scientists from France and the USA are conducting additional flights in a SAFIRE ATR42 plane, which is equipped with radar and infrared sensors. These will take 3D measurements of the movement of clouds and the droplets within them from above during cyclone conditions. This team is funded by the Office of Naval Research (United States) and the French National Centre for Scientific Research and National Centre for space Studies (France). It comprises scientists from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique (LMD), Laboratoire Atmosphères, Observations Spatiales, University of Oklahoma and Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey.