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September 7, 2006

Just like at home, we talk about the weather a lot here in the Arctic. Autumn is quickly approaching and it snows some almost every day. Temperatures have been hovering around -20 °C (the record low so far is -22 °C). Gearing up now means wearing most of the stuff in my closet, including a face mask to avoid, as Art put it, needing a cheek transplant when I return.

The sun makes its daily appearance just after midnight and brings with it sundogs, halos and diamond dust displays. These phenomena occur when sunlight is reflected and refracted by ice crystals suspended in the air. I have seen sundogs and halos on occasion in North Carolina, but have never seen diamond dust. The past few mornings the air has sparkled with millions of tiny suspended ice crystals glinting in the sunlight.

Several scientists on board are studying the Arctic’s weather — what makes the weather and climate and how we can better understand and forecast it. Erica Key and Peter Minnett of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami are hoping for a wide range of ice and cloud conditions on this cruise. They have an array of instruments on board and are conducting a variety of studies. Erica and Peter have been superb in their willingness to share their studies with the group.

Nikki releases a weather balloonA highlight yesterday was helping Erica launch a radiosonde (weather balloon). The first step was to initialize the sonde (measurement sensors) with our current position and surface weather observations from the meteorology station on the ship. A large balloon was then filled with helium and taken to the stern. The balloon was connected to the sonde and released. It was amazing how that simple act brought out our inner children, watching as the huge balloon quickly ascended into the heavens (at a rate of about 5 m/second). The sonde relayed measurements of temperature, pressure, relative humidity and dew point temperature back to ship at a rate of about 1,000 measurements every few minutes.

In good conditions (not too windy) a radoiosonde can travel up to 20–26 km into the lower boundary layer of the atmosphere. The data it collects has many applications including forecasting, collaborating satellite data and understanding cloud dynamics. And any information from this data-scarce region will help to improve current climate models.

According to Peter, this cruise offers a rare opportunity to conduct atmospheric studies in a climatologically important part of the globe. In one of his excellent series of lectures he summed up some important points about Arctic atmospheric studies: "The transfer of heat from the tropics to the poles defines the weather, climate, agriculture, the development of civilization and our future on this planet. The Arctic atmosphere should not be considered in isolation from the rest of the globe. It is an integral part of the climate system". This is clearly one reason that basic scientific research in this little understood region of the world is so important.

—Mike Dunn


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