Reviving Russian meteorology in the Arctic
Does it seem to be starting to rain?18 may 2023
There is a reason why the Arctic is called the 'weather kitchen.' It is there that the processes that influence rainfall, snowfall, cooling and warming across much of our country, far beyond the northern regions, are shaped. Some scientists, notably Alexander Sergeyev, President of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2019, have noted that the region as a whole has had a significant impact on global climate change in recent years. Arctic weather monitoring dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and experienced its heyday in the 1950s and the crisis of the 1990s. Today, the Russian Polar Climate Observatory is again undergoing a transformation.
One small disclaimer. In this article, we have taken a brief look at the ground-based weather observation system, leaving the space-based component of modern meteorology out of the equation. We will talk about it in future articles.
Who is on duty in the Arctic
Weather forecasting is based on mathematical models, which work more accurately the more data scientists have at their disposal. The first weather observation stations were established under the Russian Empire, but it was the USSR that carried out the systematic and thorough development of the network of polar observation stations. In the 1930s, dozens of weather stations were built on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, monitoring the weather along the entire North Sea Route. By 1985, 110 stations were operating in the Polar region, of which 24 conducted aerological, 24 actinometric and 80 hydrological surveys. In addition to stationary research bases, there were drifting platforms, and work was carried out on ships and military bases. Incidentally, meteorological stations often had a defensive function as well, monitoring the movements of submarines and ships in the Arctic Ocean.
Working at a weather station in the Arctic Circle was hard and their maintenance was a challenging and resource-intensive process. They worked in shifts of 6–12 months, with supplies brought in by ships and all-terrain vehicles. Living conditions for the staff were quite harsh, especially in the pre-war years. According to the article 'Polar Administration of Glavsevmorput and Work of Polar Stations in 1932–1963' by F.A. Romanenko and N.M. Yezhova, at Uyedineniya Island station, there was about 3 m2 of personal space per person, and there were frequent shortages of supplies of provisions and fuel. People had to unload steamers standing waist-deep in icy water in late autumn, they contracted scurvy and dismantled the houses they had built for fuel. And this station maintenance work—making observations, piloting ships and taking part in surveys—was in itself a daunting task.
'...hourly air weather. We could not stand it. Volodya was on the ship's watch. I don't undress for three days. I sleep at the table,' wrote meteorologist M.M. Kozhukhov, who worked at the Heiberg Island navigation station in 1947, in his diary.»
By the way, according to scientists, it was in the 1950s that the network of polar weather stations reached its greatest flowering and development, creating an infrastructural framework for the stationary study of the Arctic. It has become not only a source of useful information but also a reference point for rescue and research expeditions. The staff of the stations included not only meteorologists but also doctors and technicians who could quickly become involved in dealing with an emergency situation.
In the 1990s, economic difficulties significantly reduced the number of meteorological stations, which could not but affect the quality of forecasts. The observation points were closed one by one, dilapidated and turned into dwellings for seabirds and, occasionally, polar bears.
'The problem is the density of the observation network. To make clear forecasts, we need three components: an observation network—ground-based, airborne and space-based,' RIA Novosti quoted Maksim Yakovenko, head of Roshydromet, as saying in 2019.»
At the time, Russian scientists often used data from foreign observation stations and satellites, and the development of a domestic weather observation network became an important agenda. During the press conference, Maksim Yakovenko stressed that a system of autonomous ocean buoys is needed for accurate forecasts in the 21st century.
Put the robots in the cold
By 2024, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) will deploy a network of autonomous meteorological buoys in the marine and coastal zones of the Russian Arctic. Seven stations have been installed so far, and another 42 buoys will be deployed during the current year.
'Covering the entire zone of the North Sea Route and the adjacent part of the Arctic Basin with drifting and stationary weather stations will make it possible to obtain hourly direct observations of ice and meteorological parameters in the region,' said Alexander Makarov, Director of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.»
Drifting automatic buoys have a number of advantages over fixed weather stations—they are significantly cheaper to operate over long distances and do not require people to sacrifice themselves on the altar of polar meteorology. However, this does not mean the closure of all weather stations in the region. Since 2013, Roshydromet has been gradually rebuilding observation points along the entire Arctic Ocean coast. Some of them are turned into observatories (on Spitsbergen Island, Hansen Island and in Tiksi), where scientists carry out scientific work on climate research in fairly comfortable conditions; some stations are restored to former, Soviet standards of work, and some more sites become automatic observation centres. And Russian scientists have also built the drifting research platform Severny Polyus-41, which has become an autonomous base for climate research in the polar region. It allows a large team of specialists to work in northern latitudes without risk to life and health, and to test unique technological solutions and innovations.
What is the fate of the old weather stations? In April 2023, the Norilsk Development Agency and Roshydromet signed an agreement to renovate a number of abandoned weather stations. They will be turned into strongholds for polar tourism. It is envisaged that visitors to the region will be taken there by light aircraft or on all-terrain vehicles. The bases themselves will be staffed by specialists who will be able not only to welcome tourists but also to assist other polar explorers in emergency situations—evacuation and medical help. The method, let's agree, has been tried many times and works well. A new programme in the Taimyr could be a successful case that could breathe a second life into a unique network of Arctic bases.Read more Lard, snezhura and shuga Why northerners keep a close eye on the ice and plan their logistics