More accurate weather data from Antarctica thanks to Switzerland and Belgium | Polarjournal
Such automatic weather stations AWS have been providing important local and regional weather and climate data from the Arctic and Antarctic to research groups at home for years. Image: International Polar Foundation

When it comes to weather and climate data from Antarctica, researchers rely not only on satellite observations but also on automatic weather stations in the field. These usually deliver their data to the scientific community via satellites, which does not always go off without a hitch. Now, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, together with Belgian researchers from the IPF, have developed a new network of automatic weather stations that literally takes a different way.

From the coast through the Belgian Antarctic station “Princess Elisabeth Antarctica” (PEA) to the Antarctic plateau runs a 280 kilometer long strip where currently five automatic weather stations AWS are combined in a network and collect meteorological and climatological data at their locations. These data are then forwarded to researchers in Switzerland, Belgium and the USA for further use. And it is precisely this forwarding that is the novelty of PEACE, the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Climate Experiment: Instead of first sending their data to servers and then to their destinations via the ARGOS satellite system, the AWS continuously send their data terrestrially via a forwarding station to the Belgian Antarctic station. From here, they can then be sent straight to Brussels via geostationary communications satellite and distributed from there.

At the heart of the new network is a relay or forwarding station that receives data from each AWS and forwards it to the Belgian Antarctic station. Although most of the stations are located in the middle of the ice, the researchers had to purposefully set up their relay station on a mountain, because the curvature of the Earth, the distance of the AWS from the Antarctic station, and its location have to be factored in for continuous communication between the AWS and the station. The choice for the location of the relay station fell on the newly named Van-Autenboer peak at an altitude of about 2,700 meters. Here the researchers installed the relay station. Several 12-volt batteries, charged by a small wind turbine, provide ongoing radio contact with the station and the AWSs located to the north and south. More stations can and will be added in the near future, IPF explains in a press release.

Some of the measuring stations whose data the relay station collects and forwards have been in operation around the PEA station for years. In addition to temperature, pressure and humidity, wind speed and direction, radiation, snow amount and/or ice loss are measured. For the first time, the well-known Swiss climate researcher and former WSL director Professor Konrad “Koni” Steffen set up the first two stations as part of PEACE for the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) in 2012, and a third followed the following year. CU has since turned these three stations over to the International Polar Foundation. Two others came from the former Swiss Camp on Greenland, where they had already proved their worth for decades. The system consists of a series of measuring instruments mounted on a high pole at different heights. Solar panels provide power in the summer. In the future, specially designed small wind turbines will provide power even in winter, and an automatic control system will minimize instrumentation and especially radio contact during power shortages.

The Belgian station “Princess Elisabeth Antarctica” is the first zero-emission station in Antarctica and is inhabited only in summer. In winter, a sophisticated monitoring system with direct communication to Brussels ensures smooth operation. This communication now also allows continuous AWS data to be obtained. Image: International Polar Foundation

The use of automated weather stations in Antarctica to collect important real-time local and regional data dates back to an initiative of the University of Wisconsin Madison and Professor Charles Stearns in 1980. In the meantime, such stations are located at numerous places in Antarctica and provide important data for climatologists and meteorologists and their models about the processes in East Antarctica. If the PEACE project is successful, the researchers can imagine adding more AWSs that have been set up for other projects as well. Swiss researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne EPFL have also built AWS near the Belgian station. Since the Belgian station is monitored and controlled via satellite communications during the winter, this could provide important data on an ongoing basis from a part of Antarctica that still puzzles scientists about the effects of climate change on the white wilderness.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Contributed image: courtesy of the International Polar Foundation.

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