I moved to Barrow, Alaska in December 2009, with my wife Sarah, from my hometown Boulder, Colorado. I struggled throughout college to choose between a major in engineering, where I was most skilled, and a major in cultural anthropology, where my interests were strongest. I eventually graduated with degrees in Math and Anthropology, and now I am the observatory Station Chief in Barrow.
My division of NOAA chose to work in Barrow because it’s the northernmost community in the U.S. You’ve got a predominant wind straight off the Arctic Ocean and our tower is the first thing that this wind hits, funneling into our different instruments inside. Here we sample the atmosphere and want clean Arctic air to create a baseline data set, which is about accumulating long-term continuous data sets.
“According to the data most of the major greenhouse gases are increasing consistently”
At Barrow we take around 300 measurements of different gases and atmospheric constituents per day. Our core research is organized into five different groups. The first is the Carbon Cycle and Greenhouse Gas Group, which continuously measures major greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide). The second is the Ozone and Water Vapor Group, which monitors the ozone layer and surface ozone, unlike its high altitude cousin is actually a form of pollution. The third is the Halocarbons Group, which continuously measures the gases that deplete the ozone layer. Emissions regulations have helped to significantly lessen the amount of ozone-depleting gases in our atmosphere. Those trends can be seen in our data. The fourth group, Solar and Infrared Radiation, provides a background for how our solar radiation budget is changing over time. Lastly, our Aerosol Group measures aerosols and particulates, like dust, pollutants, and smoke suspended in air.
“CO2 is a greenhouse gas that acts like a blanket around the earth. It traps heat and significantly influences the climate”
Our gas measurements are made using “gas chromatography.” Put simply, we have different detectors that report different voltages as the concentration of the gas they are looking at changes. From that we can create a long-term data record. We use calibration gases, a standard gas mixture that’s used as a reference to make sure our measurements are accurate. This way we can detect small changes in the composition of the atmosphere. NOAA also takes air samples from around the world, which are compared to our numbers.
One of the most important measurements we take is Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which we have been measuring here since 1972. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that acts like a blanket around the earth. It traps heat. Visible sunlight passes through the atmosphere and hits the surface of the earth, producing heat. Greenhouse gases keep this heat from radiating back into space, causing a warming effect. CO2 is important because there is so much of it and it significantly influences the climate. Over time we expect long-term climate patterns to change, resulting in a warming earth.
The general trend shows rising levels of CO2. A couple of years ago Arctic concentrations hit 400 parts per million (ppm), meaning that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was extremely high. The fact is, the more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more warming there will be.
In 2012 the Barrow, Alaska baseline observatory site became the first site in the world to measure CO2 at 400 ppm, an extremely alarming concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This milestone is a warning of how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere since the pre-industrial age.
Barrow was the first of our observatory sites to hit 400 ppm because of seasonal fluctuation. One new thing that has recently caught our scientists’ attention is that over time we are also seeing an increase in the amplitude of our seasonal fluctuation. Basically the difference between our highest and lowest CO2 concentrations is gradually increasing. NOAA scientists attribute this to changing vegetation.
Our air is influenced by the boreal forests of Canada and Siberia; the plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide in the summer but in the winter much of the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This results in higher concentrations of CO2 in the Arctic than at lower latitude sites. You don’t see this same seasonal fluctuation in the Southern Hemisphere simply due to its lower amount of landmass. Without the landmass, you don’t have boreal forests like you do in the Northern Hemisphere. Similarly, you also don’t see the fluctuation as much over the tropics due to the lack of distinctive seasons.
“The Arctic hosts giant carbon stores in the tundra, which have built up from ancient stores of vegetation”
Methane (CH4) is another important greenhouse gas we measure, ranking second to CO2 on the scale of climate-forcing greenhouse gases. The Arctic hosts giant carbon stores in the tundra, which have built up from ancient stores of vegetation. We are currently in a dangerous cycle: as the Arctic climate warms, the permafrost in the tundra thaws and more methane is released into the atmosphere, which in turn causes more warming. This is what is called a positive feedback loop.
Another concerning positive feedback loop in the Arctic is the loss of sea ice. The surface of sea ice acts as a reflector of sunlight. It fends off solar energy (or heat) from the earth’s surface. This effect is called albedo. With the loss of sea ice the Arctic loses this reflective feature, which means that instead of reflecting a large portion of solar energy, the earth absorbs it and gains heat. The decrease in sea ice has strong effects on the people and wildlife in Northern Alaska and is a constant topic of concern in Barrow.
At the Barrow Observatory we don’t have any direct measurements of sea ice extent, but we have melt dates based on our measurement of albedo. Basically, we have sensors measuring the solar reflection off of the snow. This is how we objectively determine a date for snow melt. In Barrow, we have a seen a trend of earlier and earlier snow melt dates.
“We need less opinion-based debates about climate change and more conversations surrounding scientific fact and trends that are well established”
Over time we have received unfortunate but anticipated results. According to the data, most of the major greenhouse gases are increasing consistently. The implications for the future of the Arctic are immense. Of course the town of Barrow stands to gain from oil and gas investment and development, but it wouldn’t be possible without the depletion of sea ice. The subsistence lifestyle up here is strongly connected to the environment and is very much at risk because of these changes in sea ice, wildlife, and weather.
I have been working for the NOAA for four years and I really enjoy what I’m doing; it’s important to me to feel like I’m working towards a better world. My hope is that we are helping build long-term understanding of climate change. Climate change science is a form of science that is widely discussed and pretty politically charged but, more often than not, arguments are unsubstantiated and things can get really complicated because people have different motivations towards the science. We need less opinion-based debates and more conversations surrounding scientific fact and trends that are well established.