UW News

November 18, 2013

Post-shutdown, UW Arctic research flights resume

UW News

After a couple of stressful weeks during the federal government shutdown, University of Washington researchers are back at work monitoring conditions near the North Pole. November has been busy for UW scientists studying winter storms, glacier melt and floating sea ice.

‘Hurricane hunter’ measures polar vortex

sea ice

Arctic sea ice as seen from the aircraft.NOAA

A long-planned mission researchers had feared could be cancelled finally left in late October. Nick Bond, a research meteorologist at the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, returned from 2 1/2 weeks in Alaska as part of a trip to measure how less ice and more open water in the Arctic Ocean might influence storm paths.

The partnership between the UW and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used NOAA’s “hurricane hunter” aircraft to fly just above the ice edge and see how heat radiating off the surface could destabilize the polar vortex, a huge weather feature that can affect storms throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

“When the polar vortex is strong, it’s very stable,” Bond said. “It’s like a Frisbee spinning fast – it’s stable and the cold air that develops in the Arctic is kind of bottled up.”

When the polar vortex is weaker, however, wobbles can send cold air shooting south. That’s when places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Northern Europe and Eastern Asia get hit with snowstorms and wintry weather.

Some scientists have suggested that an ice-free Arctic Ocean could destabilize the polar vortex. The mission collected data to help test this controversial theory, Bond said.

researchers in plane

Nick Bond, center, in the plane during one of eight low-elevation research flights.NOAA

The measurements meant flying just 200 feet above the surface, and it often felt closer than that, Bond said. The specialized aircraft was equipped with more instruments than most weather stations to collect detailed measurements of heat and air turbulence.

In coming months, Bond and his colleagues will analyze the data and compare the observations with output from weather forecasting and climate models. They hope to understand whether the extra heat from the open water is enough to destabilize the polar vortex. Also of interest is how well weather-forecasting and ice models can predict conditions in the Chuchki Sea northwest of Alaska, an area now being explored for its oil.

The 16-day federal shutdown delayed the mission, but unseasonably warm weather meant the team was taking measurements at the right time to capture the fall freeze-up, Bond said.

“We were just fortunate, and it actually worked out pretty well,” he said.

Measuring summer glacier melt

Also this month, UW researchers helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration create laser maps of melting Greenland glaciers. Ben Smith, a geophysicist with the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, helped design flight paths for the 16-day mission that ended Saturday (Nov. 16).

colored glacier map

A 2009 map of an Antarctic glacier taken with the same laser instrument, NASA’s Land, Vegetation & Ice Sensor.NASA

Scientists hope to better understand glaciers, the wild card in terms of climate change and rising sea levels. A NASA research aircraft used lasers to make an elevation-change map for important parts of the Greenland ice sheet.

Smith will compare the new data with similar measurements taken last spring to calculate how much the surface melted during the summer. This first-ever fall measurement will provide a baseline estimate of summer melt, in preparation for year-round laser monitoring of glaciers set to begin in 2016.

“Jakobshavn Glacier is the most exciting glacier in Greenland right now because it’s losing tremendous amounts of mass into the ocean,” Smith said. Flight paths included measurements right at the foot of the glacier, where ice is lost both to melting and to icebergs calving, and higher up on the ice sheet in colder conditions.

The government shutdown delayed the flight and some snow had already accumulated on the glacier. Another consequence was the temperatures – flights conducted by NASA scientists were very cold, Smith said.

UW–Coast Guard monitoring flights

Coast Guard in plane

The U.S. Coast Guard gets ready to drop a buoy during a previous year’s flight.Ignatius Rigor, UW

Also under way this month is the last installment this year in a series of flights in which UW Applied Physics Laboratory accompanies the U.S. Coast Guard on flights out of Kodiak, Alaska to drop oceanographic probes into cracks in the sea ice and deploys buoys in tough-to-reach Northern waters.

Jamie Morison, an oceanographer at the Applied Physics Lab, leaves Tuesday (Nov. 19) for his first such flight in three months. This will be the latest in the year that the 40-year veteran of Arctic research has ever been out on the ice.

“With the limited daylight, finding open water for our sensor drops will be challenging,” Morison said.

The ocean current and temperature observations help UW researchers, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and others to monitor and understand changing Arctic conditions.


For more information, contact Bond at 206-526-6459 or nab3met@uw.edu; Smith at 206-616-9176 or bsmith@apl.washington.edu and Morison at 206-543-1394 or morison@apl.washington.edu.

Pictures of the NOAA trip: on.fb.me/1a1k1vC

NOAA news release: “Airborne scientists get a close look at the changing Arctic”                           

NASA news release: “NASA begins airborne campaign to map Greenland Ice Sheet summer melt