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Scientists set up a weather station in Antarctica.
Photo Courtesy: Matthew Lazzara
Matthew Lazzara, left, adjusts a wind vane on an automatic weather station (AWS) at the WAIS Divide field camp in West Antarctica, while Charles Bentley looks on. Lazzara is the principal investigator for the AWS program and Antarctic Meteorological Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Long-range forecast

UW-Madison group marks 30 years tracking Antarctic weather

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On the roof of the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) External Non-U.S. government site, festooned with antenna that grab data from orbiting satellites in space, Matthew Lazzara External Non-U.S. government site gestures to the various dishes, describing the unique history of each one, as if recounting royal lineage.

Two on top of the penthouse date back to the 1970s, he explains. One points to a NOAA External U.S. government site satellite that provides imagery over the Antarctic Peninsula. Others receive information from a pair of important Earth-observing satellites launched by NASA, Terra and Aqua External U.S. government site.

“A lot of different satellite observations are made available here, which allows us to do some of the work we do,” Lazzara explains before ducking back inside the penthouse of the 15-story building as an October rain drizzle on the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) External Non-U.S. government site campus turns heavy.

That work involves making now hourly satellite composites of the Antarctic continent and the weather systems that swirl around and over it in the Southern Hemisphere. The imagery is the hallmark product of the Antarctic Meteorological Research Center (AMRC) External Non-U.S. government site, which occupies the ninth floor of the SSEC.

Lazzara is the principal investigator (PI) for the center as well as one of the PIs for the Antarctic Automatic Weather Station (AWS) Program External Non-U.S. government site, a network of about 60 weather stations that collect data year-round and account for more than half of all such observatories on the continent. The National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site funds both programs.

Lazzara became a PI on the AWS program in 2007 and took over the AMRC from its founder, Charles Stearns External Non-U.S. government site, last year. A World War II veteran, Stearns established the AWS program in 1980 and began generating the satellite weather composites of Antarctica in 1992, launching the AMRC.

Now Lazzara, who received his doctorate from UW-Madison by studying the occurrence of fog in Antarctica, wants to improve access to the center’s vast archive of weather data while pursuing new research on wind and cloud movement using the satellite composites.

The AWS system

“That’s one of the things that’s maybe unique about our group. We release the data out rapidly, get it out to people as fast as we can get it,” he says. “Our goal is going to get to be a lot more self-sufficient — easy access — all of the things you might expect a data center would provide.”

Scientist climbs on a weather station.
Photo Courtesy: Matthew Lazzara
Matthew Lazzara climbs on an AWS near Windless Bight on the Ross Ice Shelf.

The data are used for various purposes, from weather forecasting for flight operations around the continent to climate change research. Lazzara notes that information collected from the AWS program was used in a major paper published in the journal Nature earlier this year by Eric Steig at the University of Washington External Non-U.S. government site. Steig and his co-authors suggested that Antarctica overall is warming in step with the rest of the planet.

Each year, a team from UW-Madison, usually with some of their collaborators from other institutions, head to the Ice to service and repair various AWS towers and install new ones. For example, during the 2008-09 field season, the group visited about 27 AWS sites and installed two new stations.

The three-meter-tall towers — with various low-energy sensors powered by solar and batteries — collect basic meteorological data such as temperature, pressure and wind speed. In the future, Lazzara’s team will install a 30-meter-tall tower on the Ross Ice Shelf — the first “tall tower” in the network.

The AWS system turns 30 years old this year, a significant milestone because 30 years is the standard timeframe for establishing climatological trends, according to Lazzara. A few of the sites have survived for almost that long, he said.

A tower called Ferrell (named after a U.S. Navy captain, while many others carry the names of pilots or even family members of the science team) has been running for 30 years as it moves with the flow of ice on the Ross Ice Shelf External U.S. government site, Lazzara says. Another unit at Marble Point, near McMurdo Station, may host some original gear from 1980 as well.

The hardware is built to military specification, Lazzara adds, which has proved to be fairly hardy in the extreme Antarctic environment.

“It’s a great investment that NSF has put into the weather station program. It’s solid hardware that can last a long, long time,” he says. Each AWS package costs about $15,000 to $20,000.

But even the tough AWS units can get hammered by winds. Cape Denison on the Adélie coast regularly records wind speeds of 60 to 90 kilometers per hour, and once clocked the winds at 196 kph.

“The Adélie coast is bad news,” Lazzara says. “It’s a place to throw away hardware.”

A map of AWS sites in Antarctica hangs nearby in one of the AMRC offices, showing all 120-plus stations. Lazzara says that the continent, about 1½ times the size of the United States, is in reality sparsely monitored.

“It looks like a big forest of weather stations, but it really isn’t,” he says. “This is really bare minimum of weather stations you could have compared to what we have [in the United States].”1 2   Next