Going with the floe
Scientists track Arctic weather with ice buoys
Hitching a ride across the frozen Arctic Ocean on an ice pan isn’t travel in the fast lane, but for ice buoys the slow pace is fine.
Resembling white chimney pipes stuck into the ice, these buoys, which are equipped with their own power supply as well as sophisticated recording and transmitting devices, measure wind speed or what the surrounding air temperature is. By their changing positions, they show what direction the sea ice is moving.
In The Day After Tomorrow, a recently released doomsday movie, similar buoys register a severe drop in temperature that is the first indicator of a new global ice age.
Edward Hudson, a meteorologist with Environment Canada’s Prairie and Arctic Storm Prediction Centre, confesses he hasn’t seen the movie.
But he says it would be hard to know what was happening on the polar ice without ice buoys because they provide essential information used by climatologists, meteorologists and oceanographers.
“It’s a huge piece of real estate, so there’s a lot of science being done with this data,” Hudson said in an interview from Edmonton.
Hudson has been using buoys since the 1970s to improve weather forecasts.
The buoy’s information on temperature and pressure play a large role in his day-to-day analysis of weather systems. The buoys mean he’s less likely to get surprised by the depth of a low pressure system, the kind that brings a major storm.
Hudson recalls how in 1979 as a forecaster at the Beaufort Weather and Ice Office, he caught a major low pressure system moving towards the Beaufort area and was able to issue a severe weather warning before the storm hit.
Back then, the micro-technology was in its infancy and buoys had their own power plant. Now, buoys are more compact and the satellite technology that they rely on for communications is more advanced.
In 1991, 10 countries formed a group called the International Arctic Buoy Program to collaborate on ice buoy deployment.
Hudson, a member of the IABP board, says setting out the ice buoys is now an international effort.
A recent drop for “Ice Buoys 2004” saw Environment Canada providing the technical manpower, while the Polar Continental Shelf Project supplied the transportation 500 kilometers onto the sea ice. The U.S. National Ice Centre provided the buoys.
Every year new buoys are deposited on the ice. Their batteries last about three years, but the ice on which the buoys are placed can break up or melt.
“We have already ‘lost’ one the buoys deployed this March,” Hudson says.
Most of the ice from the Arctic Basin exits between Spitsbergen Islands and northern Greenland. Some of the ice exits between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
“We actually had one of the buoys that was deployed in 1998 choose that route and go zipping down the Nares Strait into Baffin Bay. When we last saw it in 2002 or 2003, it was in the Labrador Sea, still on a piece of ice that was melting, so it was quite spectacular,” Hudson says.
On June 2, there were 26 buoys on ice across the Arctic Basin, reporting surface air temperature and air pressure, as well as 11 buoys, reporting only their positions.
The buoys are spaced out about 500 km apart to allow for better coverage of the Arctic ice area and more complete data.
The data is posted on the IABP Web page at http://iabp.apl.washington.edu/ for anyone to consult, free-of-charge.
This site contains mappings of sea level pressure, surface air temperature and ice motion from the data provided by the ice buoys.