Emerging Issue Summary

  • North Slope weather data collection is currently ad hoc at best; a systematic approach to data collection, data storage, data management, data dissemination and equipment maintenance is critically needed for accurate assessment and prediction of weather and climate patterns.
  • Agencies and other entities responsible for and in need of weather data need to work together in a concerted effort to inventory existing weather stations, undertake a gap analysis, and invest in an improved, well-coordinated, and centrally managed (or at least coordinated) system.
  • The pressing need for improved weather data collection and management cannot be overemphasized. The current state of affairs is troubling and in need of immediate rectification.

Meteorological station on the North Slope. (Doug Kane, UAF)

Overview and Management Relevance:

Weather and climate are among the most pressing environmental issues facing society in general. Climate change is impacting arctic people, wildlife, and habitat while also affecting industrial operations. Many of the other emerging issues are directly related to expected changes in the local climate. In short, we must make substantial improvements in how we undertake the most essential task of understanding and modeling climate if we are to achieve much progress on other issues. These improvements require improved weather data that will allow both downscaling of models and ground truthing of models. Improved weather data will also provide benefits beyond their use in climate change studies, such as improved logistical planning for field operations.

First, two definitions: Weather is the measurable day-to-day variation in temperature, wind, precipitation, and so on at discrete locations. Human activity is strongly influenced by the weather. The weather determines if flying will be safe and when roads need to be plowed. Climate is the derived long-term trend in the weather and the variation in average conditions over months and years on a regional basis. Climate determines how many plows might need to be purchased and maintained based on the expected amount of snowfall and number and severity of winter blizzards. Knowledge of the weather is essential in human operations. Knowledge of the climate is essential in human planning. The two are connected in a practical way because climate data are derived from weather data.

The “weather station,” be it a single temperature recording device or a complex first-order NOAA weather station, is the unit on which both weather and climate information are based. With climate warming underway, understanding both the weather and climate are equally important at this juncture on the North Slope. Weather and climate play a role in many short-term and virtually every long-term management decision on the North Slope.

On the North Slope, there are multiple independent stations and networks recording the weather. Some of the stations are part of formal national weather and climate networks, while others are part of small private and/or research networks (e.g., UAF Water and Environmental Research Center). Since these stations have different purposes and funding sources, there is little to no coordination of efforts. No single individual or agency knows the totality of what is in place and operating, nor who is operating it. A wide range of instrumentation is employed with varying degrees of success. The spacing of the existing weather networks and individual stations is the result of specific project-driven needs, logistical realities, and in some cases, the legacy of past practices (e.g., one network operated by the USGS is located at NPRA boreholes). Measured parameters, protocol, quality, and maintenance vary widely from station to station.

Despite a lack of information on existing weather stations and their capabilities, it is clear that current efforts to measure weather are not adequate. Even if existing disparate networks could be integrated into a single well-operating network with exemplary data reporting, we would still be under-sampling the weather and climate conditions of the North Slope. Moreover, the existing data cannot be found in any single one-stop location. In fact, prior attempts to consolidate data from multiple sources have resulted in frustration and ultimately failure.

Finally, the current ad hoc network includes within it ephemeral stations and ghost stations. Ephemeral stations are operated by individuals or agencies that do not have the means for long-term continuity and are thus likely to cease operation after just a few years. Ghost stations are those that were once operated, perhaps even generating a lengthy record, but which are no longer operating. Ephemeral and ghost stations could both contribute significantly to our understanding of weather and climate change on the North Slope, but they are unlikely to do so in their current state. Steps need to be taken to rescue data from ephemeral and ghost stations. It is also important to establish a mechanism for temporarily supporting stations, systematically assessing their importance and developing a long-term solution to keep them operating, if appropriate.

The result is that the meteorological data may be under-sampled in large regions and well-sampled in smaller areas. The diversity of approaches requires a fair amount of effort to allow comparisons. The ephemeral nature of a majority of measurements severely hampers the ability to derive climate information, which requires long-term, consistent measurements.

Why is this issue so important and fundamental? A few anecdotal bullets may illustrate the problem:

  • Research or work crews try to fly into a remote location on the North Slope, but are forced to return because while the weather was good at the nearest weather station, it was bad at the remote site. Such flights waste time and resources, but beyond cost concerns, these situations are potentially dangerous for the personnel involved. Clearly, weather prediction for the North Slope is hampered by a low density of reporting sites, yet many existing sites are either not in use or are not known to weather prediction agencies.
  • In the face of unprecedented changes in the cryosphere, weather patterns across the North Slope are changing markedly. For example, snowmelt arrives two weeks earlier now than it did 30 years ago. Baselines from past years may thus no longer be valid as a basis from which to compare future change with current conditions.
  • Agencies and industry use current weather and climate forecasts for planning when to start and demobilize projects. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the BLM currently use data from a limited number of stations along the road system to make tundra opening and closing decisions. Having greater access to real-time data from a properly designed network of weather stations across the North Slope would allow both industry and agencies to make better informed, more accurate and operationally efficient decisions.

In short, this emerging issue of weather and climate cuts across all agencies and stakeholders living and working on the North Slope, and is absolutely fundamental to what they do. Although existing data collection networks are inadequate, rapid and much-needed progress could be made with relatively little outlay in money and effort. This progress could serve as a shining example of the value of the NSSI.

The following recommendations focus on collection of the weather measurements that are required to provide a credible basis for the climate change information needed to address several other emerging issues. We leave the effects of climate change on particular issues, such as coastal erosion and sea ice, to those emerging issue summaries. Various national and international research programs are conducting efforts to improve and downsize climate models appropriate to the North Slope region. These programs recognize a need to provide results on a scale appropriate to answer regional questions, but the quality of local and regional information to feed these efforts is what needs immediate attention.


  1. Inventory all of the meteorological data and stations and do not judge them while performing the inventory. Other such inventories have proven useful and worth the time. For example, the Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) completed inventories for all National Park Service networks in the country (http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/nps/reports.php) that address measurements, consistency, maintenance, standards, QA/QC, and so on. To do the meteorological data and station inventory well will require a real person (or persons) with the necessary time and resources to do a lot of detective work in the form of phone calls and site visits. The inventory should include information about type of data, length of record, source of funding, likelihood of continued operation, annual cost, method of data transmission (GOES, radio, collected on visits), and so on.
  2. Determine the degree of flexibility in station design to assess whether modifications in design and deployment are feasible that allow the stations to provide more consistent data while still achieving their intended purpose.
  3. Canvas the various NSSI agencies and groups to develop a list of their needs for a) operational weather data, b) weather forecasting (including short- and long-term and local- and broad-scale wind conditions), c) climate forecasting, d) data to test empirical, physical and hybrid models (of natural systems and biota) and e) other research applications. Allow these needs to vary from group to group, but look for common areas within the needs.
  4. Using the information from the canvas, engage in a “gap” analysis: Where are new stations needed? Gaps exist only when questions or issues are defined. For an example of this kind of analysis, see the work of the WRCC and the interagency Program for Climate, Ecosystem and Fire Applications that assessed the Great Basin Remote Automated Weather Stations network and produced criteria and recommendations for new stations to fill gaps in that region (http://www.cefa.dri.edu/Publications/gbreport.pdf).
  5. Determine how best to use gridded model products (such as the Oregon State University PRISM climatology or the North American Regional Reanalysis) in conjunction with station data to produce better, more spatially explicit weather and climate products, as well as to explore where to best augment future measurement networks.
  6. Collectively pool resources and begin to install new stations as identified in Step #4 above. A climate network may best be built through efforts from the multiple groups currently collecting weather data. This may require some creative management to successfully maneuver through likely controversies with regard to financing, operating the stations and managing the data.
  7. Explore what would constitute a nationally satisfactory way to make the data accessible to users with a minimum of cost and effort, and how this data would be integrated with existing national archiving efforts. Be sure to address the issue of credit. Every individual, group, or agency wants their efforts to be recognized and acknowledged. The data should be archived and disseminated through an appropriate entity such as WRCC.
  8. With the weather network improvements that result from the steps described above, better and more reliable downscaled climate predictions will result. This will then present an excellent opportunity for agencies to collaborate on the acquisition and use of shared forecasts that can be used to assess climate impacts on activities and resources within their respective areas of responsibility.

We understand that some progress on Recommendations 1, 2, 4 and 7 is already being made under the aegis of the National Weather Service. However, it is our belief that if all NSSI entities undertake these above steps with vigor and sufficient human and financial resources in a coordinated manner, a more complete and very positive result would be produced in a reasonable period. One perhaps obvious caveat is that the process outlined above requires care to avoid placing too much of a time and money burden on the operators of the networks that are already in place—that is, it is important to avoid discouraging participation. With this in mind, it is crucial to have sufficient staff to direct and implement the project.


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