This week, President Obama is bringing some rare attention to how climate change is impacting Alaska, with a visit to the state and an official name change for the nation’s highest mountain. But much more quietly, an important sensor network is slowly being built across the state that collects crucial information about how the warming temperatures are transforming Alaska.
The project, the U.S. Climate Reference Network, or USCRN, currently involves a network of 18 environmental data collection stations across Alaska, as well as two in Hawaii and 114 across the lower 48 states. The network is managed by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), in partnership with the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD), both divisions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Over the last few years the engineers have been expanding the network across Alaska in an attempt to get the most accurate data about the state’s rapidly changing air temperatures, precipitation levels (rain and snow), soil moisture and ground temperature. The team, which adds around two stations annually, hopes to have 29 stations by 2022. The idea to expand the network into Alaska was first funded in 2010.
In recent weeks, the engineers have installed two new stations in Alaska, including one 27 miles north of the newly-renamed mountain, Denali, called the Denali Station. That station is situated near the Wonder Lake Campground at the end of the Denali Park Road at an elevation of 2,225 feet.
The other new Alaskan station is Selawik Station, about 28 miles east of the village of Selawik, near the state’s north-west coast. That station is next to the Selawik River and a lake, which makes it accessible to float planes that deliver equipment.
The engineers only have a handful of weeks during Alaska’s summer to visit all of the sites in the state, fix equipment, and install the new stations. Nearly all materials must be shipped in on barges and seaplanes while engineers must fly into set up the sites. That’s why progress in adding new sites is so slow.
The network’s expansion is at the mercy of the state’s weather and harsh, remote conditions. Last year, the team installed three stations, but the year before that they only had time to install one before storms suspended work.
In an interview with Fortune, USCRN Program Manager Howard Diamond explained that building a sensor network across Alaska “presents challenges” because of the remote locations of the stations and the lack of steady power sources. The stations must be able to operate for months at a time without any connection to the power and in extremely icy and dark conditions.
The two new Alaskan stations, like most in the state, use a variety of off grid power sources. Those include solar panels, a wind generator (only for the Selawki station), and a fuel cell that generates electricity using methanol. The electricity generated on site is stored in batteries that power the equipment that records and stores the data, heating systems and transmitters.
The stations need multiple power sources because solar panels don’t work well during the dark days of the Alaskan winter. Diamond says the methanol fuel cells, however, work quite well.
Each station has sensors that measure air temperature, humidity, precipitation and wetness (the presence of precipitation), surface infrared temperature, solar radiation, and wind speed at ground level. The Selawik station also has a 20-foot wind vane that tracks wind speed and direction.
When completed, the USCRN will have sensing stations spread out across Alaska. Future sites are planned in Bethel, on the west coast, at Toolik Lake, in the north, and near Cordova, Yakutat and Red Lake, in the southern region. The USCRN builds stations in remote locations, outside of developed areas, because they don’t want the stations to be affected by human development, or as Diamond put it: “not somewhere where a mini mall will likely get built.”
All data collected by Alaskan stations, and in the lower 48 states, collectively create one of the most detailed and accurate records of the changing surface temperatures, precipitation levels and soil temperature conditions in the U.S. Before this network was built, much of this data came from weather stations, which aren’t optimized to collect climate data over time.
The USCRN stations deliver the climate information in real time, every hour, making the data useful for decision making and action by climate scientists, policy makers and the energy and insurance industry. The data can also be accessed by anyone remotely and for free.
On a broader level, the network’s data is meant to create a definitive record of the surface changes happening across the U.S. over decades. The data shows that surface level temperatures are rising, particularly in Alaska.
The surface environmental conditions recorded by the USCRN network are just a small part of the information that can show the effects of climate change. As Diamond describes it, it’s just “one piece of the puzzle.”
The government is also collecting crucial data through other networks including information about retreating glaciers, rising sea levels, rising carbon emissions levels in the atmosphere, increasing rate of wild fires, and intensity of extreme weather events. On the local level, networks and research projects that focus on one community, or one region, are also important to highlight how the changing climate is effecting individuals.
And of course, climate change is a global problem, and the USCRN is focused only on the U.S. International governments and organizations are also collecting and analyzing environmental data on a planetary level.
Updated at 7:30AM PST to include participation by the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD).
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