DISCUSSION: Climate Monitoring group officials at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) met on December 4th, 2017 to conduct their monthly data processing meeting. NCEI is responsible for the processing of climate data from across the U.S. to track the effects of climate change. As group officials began analyzing data, however, they found that some data from the Utqiaġvik, Alaska weather station was missing. In fact, all the data from 2017 and data from several months of 2016 were missing.
Utqiaġvik is located in the northernmost region of Alaska, not far from Barrow. Unlike the rest of the country, Alaska is experiencing climate change more rapidly from thawing permafrost to changing sea ice coverage. In fact, sea ice coverage has receded to its lowest levels in recent years. Sea ice coverage is at its lowest in September and begins to return to the Alaskan coast in October and November. NCEI plotted data comparing the average November temperature and average sea ice coverage between 1979 and 2017 and the results showed a correlation between warming temperatures and lower sea ice coverage. The warmest November on record was in 2017, as well as the lowest sea ice coverage since 1979.
A record-warm November is just one example of an extreme change in Utqiaġvik’s climate. The above diagram represents the average monthly temperature change at the Utqiaġvik weather station for each month during two separate time periods: 1979—1999 and 2000—2017. The change in the summer months wasn’t extremely prevalent, but there was a notable change in the monthly average temperature of October, November, and December. All three months observed a temperature change of four degrees Fahrenheit over the last several decades.
Tracking long-term climatic changes, such as the aforementioned ones, via these weather stations isn’t easy for meteorologists. These stations are extremely fragile and can be interrupted by sensory changes, time of observation, and movement of stations. Stations are also prone to malfunctioning which is why algorithms such as the Pairwise Homogeneity Algorithm, or PHA, were developed. PHA tests were developed in an effort to combat stations that are reporting artificial data. Should a station’s observations change drastically when compared with neighboring stations and the data be inconsistent with past findings, the PHA test will flag the stations’ observations.
Utqiaġvik is an isolated station at the forefront of climate change. The combination of those two factors allowed the PHA test to detect a change in the observations, paving the way for the removal of over 12 months of data. The removal of sea ice nearby, attributed to climate change, may have had a major effect on the station’s ability to properly analyze data.
Modern technology in all its complexity is no match for the rapidly changing environment. The incident in Utqiaġvik is just one example of technological failure. For the time being, NCEI officials have begun slowly repairing the Utqiaġvik station so similar errors surely do not happen again.
To learn more about other interesting climate topics and stories from around the world, be sure to click here!
©2018 Weather Forecaster Jacob Dolinger