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Arctic flights to uncover link between sea ice and storms

A team of scientists are flying research aircraft through the heart of Arctic storms this summer to study how different 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 – events which can then feedback into the development of cyclones.

Two aircraft are flying around 60 missions in August from the Norwegian Arctic 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, and feed into weather and climate prediction models.

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.

“Arctic cyclones are understood far less than those in temperate regions, making them even harder to predict,” says Professor John Methven, University of Reading.

“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,” he adds.

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.

Flights are taking place between 27th July and 24 August. 

Strong northerly winds during the first week temporarily slowed sea ice retreat due to recent heat waves in the region. This and a forecast for an Arctic cyclone to track across Svalbard over the weekend have provided ideal conditions for the first flights.

A team of UK scientists are flying in the British Antarctic (BAS) Survey Twin Otter plane based from Longyearbyen in Svalbard, the most northerly town on Earth. 

White, arctic sea-ice sheet below a cloudy sky

The Natural Environment Research Council is funding the project team from the University of Reading, University of East Anglia, British Antarctic Survey, National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.

Dr Oscar Martinez-Alvarado and Dr Ben Harvey from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science are part of the team supporting flight operations. They will interpret forecasts to determine prime areas for research activity, and create flight plans for the days ahead.

“The field campaign will collect crucial information to help us improve models of our atmosphere,” says Dr Martinez-Alvarado.

“Arctic cyclones are much less understood than other types of cyclones, such as midlatitude cyclones which occasionally pass over the UK,” he adds.

The 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 the 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.

The second team is funded by the Office of Naval Research from the United States, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research and National Centre for Space Studies. It comprises scientists from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, Laboratoire Atmosphères, Observations Spatiales, University of Oklahoma and Naval Research Laboratory, Monterey.