Story map: Barrow, Alaska, as a window on the world

Take a virtual visit to the NOAA Atmospheric Baseline Observatory

 

 

For a more immersive experience, visit the Barrow, Alaska, as a window on the world offsite link StoryMap on the ESRI website.

New Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
New Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. (NOAA)

 

“The Arctic region touches the lives of all Americans. Whether Alaska is home, an inspiring destination, or a vital source of economic prosperity… rapid environmental change is being observed, impacting the global system with consequences for national interests and people around the world.” --Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021

For nearly 50 years, NOAA’s Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory has provided a window on the world, producing a record of changes at the U.S.'s northernmost tip that have a profound global reach.

Together with NOAA’s three other atmospheric baseline observatories, Barrow’s long-term, high quality measurements provide a report card on the health of our atmosphere, with data on climate change, ozone depletion and air quality that are vital to understanding the risks and opportunities of our changing planet. 

The Arctic’s striking transformation to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region has worldwide implications for addressing greenhouse gases, planning resilient communities, managing marine resources and much more. The implications stretch from Arctic villages to global health, safety, and national and economic security.

At this time of rapid change, Barrow’s observations have never been more critical. Now, after nearly a half century of service, Barrow has a new state-of-the-art laboratory, increasing the opportunities for scientific collaboration and ensuring the continuation of services so essential to building sound climate policy in the U.S. and worldwide.


Humble beginnings

This original 60-foot (18-meter) tall sampling tower has been replaced by a similar 100-foot (30-meter) tower. Interior scaffolding enables researchers to sample air at different heights, far above vegetation, temperature. wind speed and other influences on the ground.
This original 60-foot (18-meter) tall sampling tower has been replaced by a similar 100-foot (30-meter) tower. Interior scaffolding enables researchers to sample air at different heights, far above vegetation, temperature, wind speed and other influences on the ground. (NOAA)
The Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory is located 300 miles (483 km) north of the Arctic Circle near the city of Utqiaġvik (formerly the city of Barrow).

Established in 1973, Barrow was the first such facility in the Arctic. The modest 960-square foot (89-square meter) observatory was meant to be temporary, but its lifespan far outlasted expectations. Over time, the scientific equipment it hosted nearly tripled. Power and space constraints eventually precluded accepting new collaborators, but the cutting-edge new space remedies that concern.

The Barrow Observatory's expansion comes as global interest increasingly focuses on the fast-changing Arctic. As the late North Slope Elder, Uġiaqtaq Wesley Aiken, described his borough: [There is] “no heavy ice out there now.” Members of the community are witnessing profound changes to their land, ocean and environment.

The Arctic is dramatically warming, spring snowmelt is happening sooner, summers along Alaska's North Slope are longer, and greenhouse gases are trending upward in the Arctic and worldwide. Such changes have a global reach, including the risks of sea-level rise, loss of biodiversity and threats to vulnerable infrastructure.  

By continuously monitoring and measuring atmospheric conditions and changes in the Arctic for nearly half a century, Barrow staff have contributed significantly to global understanding of the state of the climate. The research at Barrow continues to inform many studies examining the potential global impacts of Arctic changes.

For their work in studying rapid Arctic change, several NOAA scientists, as members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, were recipients of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Watch this video highlighting features of the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Utqiaġvik, Alaska,  including three photo insets: original observatory, built in 1973 with later additions; Dobson Dome that formerly housed an instrument to measure ozone; and rooftop radiometers that still measure solar radiation.

World-class science

Ross Burgener, NOAA technician, inspects the albedo rack housing instruments used to calculate snowmelt dates. These dates become part of a long-term record. At Barrow, spring melt dates are typically beginning earlier and snow is arriving later in the fall, which is extending snow-free periods.
Ross Burgener, a NOAA technician, inspects the albedo rack housing instruments used to calculate snowmelt dates, which become part of a long-term record. At Barrow, spring melt dates are typically beginning earlier and snow is arriving later in the fall, which is extending snow-free periods. (NOAA)

With an expansive new 2,730-square-foot (254-square meter) research facility and state-of-the-art upgrades, the Barrow observatory is equipped to advance atmospheric research well into the 21st century. 

The research includes a diverse set of more than 200 measurements resulting from scientific programs that have tripled since the observatory opened.

Scientific understanding of the atmosphere and its changes have greatly improved because of these measurements. Data are publicly accessible at: https://gml.noaa.gov/dv/data/

With the observatory's upgrade, additional measurements from NOAA and cooperative programs will advance understanding of climate and the drivers causing the Arctic to warm at twice the global average.

Modeling and satellite observations will benefit from infrastructure and science that allow in situ observations as part of a larger, integrated system.

As a result of the changes, Barrow is now an even more valuable platform for collaborative projects conducted with U.S. and international universities and government agencies. 

Watch this Animation showing that Arctic warming is twice the global average and that, by the end of summer 2020, sea ice had reached the second lowest extent, repeating an accelerating pattern documented over decades of observation.
 

Barrow's new facilities

Marty Martinsen, NOAA technician, discusses observatory science with local students.
Marty Martinsen, NOAA technician, discusses observatory science with local students. (NOAA)

At Barrow, dedicated staff watch over the observatory, maintain the equipment and facilities, and lead public activities to explain Barrow's work.

UIC Nappairit, LLC, a member of the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, designed and built the new LEED-certified laboratory and other facilities.

Barrow's new roof deck platform holds instruments to measure solar radiation. These instruments require a full view of the sky and sun. A 100-foot (30-meter) instrument tower holds meteorological sensors to measure temperature, wind speed and more. From high above ground, air inlets on the tower supply instruments with uncontaminated air.

A new permafrost temperature monitoring facility helps scientists understand the causes and the consequences of permafrost thaw, which is seriously affecting Arctic ecosystems and infrastructure stability.

To reveal atmospheric trends, most of Barrow's measurements are meant to be repeated indefinitely. But a new "campaign" science platform facilitates temporary projects aimed at maximizing data over a short, intense time frame.

NOAA's N-WAVE high-speed fiber network, new to the Barrow Observatory, enables faster data-sharing across all operations and better communication with schools and the media. Streaming live video creates novel opportunities to connect the Arctic with the rest of our nation.

On the old roof, ice is cleared off sensors on instruments that measure solar radiation. These instruments and others that measure sky and land-based radiation have since been installed on the roof of the new laboratory (shown in background).
On the old roof, ice is cleared off sensors on instruments that measure solar radiation. These instruments and others that measure sky and land-based radiation have since been installed on the roof of the new laboratory (shown in background). (NOAA)
 
Inside the New Observatory — Diverse instruments analyze clean air supplied from the sampling tower. Some instruments measure concentrations of atmospheric gases. Others count and analyze air particles known as aerosols. Records span nearly 50 years, showing long-term trends that would be impossible to discern over a short period.
Interior of the new Observatory where diverse instruments analyze clean air supplied from the sampling tower, including concentrations of atmospheric gases and air particles known as aerosols. Records span nearly 50 years. (NOAA)

Air from steady winds

Bryan Thomas, Barrow station chief, and a local student capture air samples in glass flasks. The samples are analyzed at NOAA in Boulder, Colorado and at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Bryan Thomas, Barrow station chief, and a local student capture air samples in glass flasks. The samples are analyzed at NOAA in Boulder, Colorado and at the University of Colorado Boulder. (NOAA)

The Barrow Observatory is uniquely situated to sample air that is only minimally influenced by local or regional conditions.

NOAA samples the Arctic air, compares it with air sampled by NOAA's three other remote observatories, and then computes a baseline from which changes in time and space can be derived. When compared with air at other collection points, the baseline can highlight local and/or regional differences.

To prevent contamination of trace gas measurements, the observatory permits no internal combustion sources or volatile chemicals. Vehicle traffic is controlled, and roads do not exist upwind of the observatory.

The location, local logistical support and access to complementary data enable Barrow staff to conduct Arctic atmospheric research at a reasonable cost. To maintain long-term consistency and avoid introducing biases into data, NOAA has maintained consistent sampling methods since 1973.

Watch video showing Marty Martinsen, a NOAA scientist, collecting air samples at the the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. The concentration of greenhouse gases and other elements is then measured at NOAA in Boulder, Colorado and at other laboratories. NOAA equips hundreds of laboratories around the globe to collect air samples, a vitally important and economical way to know what is in our air.

 

A Source of Unpolluted Air — Barrow scientists measure unpolluted air.  Inlets at the top of the tower take in air (see red dot) that, for hundreds of miles upwind of the observatory, is pollution-free
A Source of Unpolluted Air — Barrow scientists measure unpolluted air. Inlets at the top of the tower take in air (see red dot) that, for hundreds of miles upwind of the observatory, is pollution-free. (NOAA)

 


Advancing global research

This map shows the strategic spread of NOAA's four remote atmospheric baseline observatories, representing a range of latitudes north and south of the equator. The positioning provides a cross section and good snapshot of Earth's atmosphere at any given time.
This map shows the strategic spread of NOAA's four remote atmospheric baseline observatories, representing a range of latitudes north and south of the equator. The positioning provides a cross section and good snapshot of Earth's atmosphere at any given time. (NOAA)

Collectively, Barrow and NOAA’s other atmospheric baseline observatories monitor and measure the global atmosphere. In addition to Utqiaġvik, the remote observatories are located at Mauna Loa, Hawaii; the South Pole, Antarctica; and American Samoa.

Established by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory in strategic, geographically disparate locations, each observatory measures air that is relatively free of local and regional pollution sources. Taken together, the observations from all sites provide an understanding of the atmosphere’s baseline conditions, yielding data on climate change, ozone depletion and air quality that are vital to understanding the risks and opportunities for our changing planet. 

Conditions measured at the four observatories feed into NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, one of the world's most comprehensive atmospheric data sets and a foundation of global climate research.

As a member of multiple international observing networks, Barrow shares much in common with other observation sites tracking our atmosphere to detect change. Barrow actively participates in the World Meteorological Organization's Global Atmosphere Watch and the International Arctic Systems for Observing the Atmosphere. Both monitor long-term scientific measurements across the Arctic.

Atmospheric Baseline Observatories.
In addition to Barrow, NOAA’s three other Atmospheric Baseline Observatories are located at Mauna Loa, Hawaii; the South Pole, Antarctica; and American Samoa. (NOAA)

Detecting long-term change

Data from Barrow and NOAA’s other observatories reveal atmospheric changes occurring over decades. These changes are small and slow, requiring great care to track with high accuracy on a daily, monthly and yearly basis.

Bryan Thomas, Barrow station chief, examines the Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases system. Shining a laser through a small chamber filled with air reveals the concentration of carbon dioxide and other gases.
Bryan Thomas, Barrow station chief, examines the Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases system. Shining a laser through a small chamber filled with air reveals the concentration of carbon dioxide and other gases. (NOAA)
Measuring greenhouse gases

NOAA and partners use observatory data to inform trends in greenhouse gases that are driving global climate change.

Barrow carbon dioxide measurements (shown in blue), plotted with data from NOAA's three other observatories, reflect the rising rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Because of its location in the Northern Hemisphere, Barrow’s annual fluctuation is huge compared to that of other sites. During summer (light blue), when plants actively “breathe” it in, carbon dioxide decreases. As decaying and dying plants release carbon dioxide in the winter, it rises (dark blue). These accurate, long-term measurements o
Barrow carbon dioxide measurements (shown in blue), plotted with data from NOAA's three other observatories, reflect the rising rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Because of its location in the Northern Hemisphere, Barrow’s annual fluctuation is huge compared to that of other sites. During summer (light blue), when plants actively “breathe” it in, carbon dioxide decreases. As decaying and dying plants release carbon dioxide in the winter, it rises (dark blue). These accurate, long-term measurements of the actual atmosphere, which do not depend on climate models but help to verify them, are vital to understanding the rapid pace at which our climate is changing. (NOAA)
Barrow scientists contribute to the NOAA-developed CarbonTracker, which, like a checkbook, keeps tabs on both the input and removal of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. In this example, warm colors show high carbon dioxide concentrations while cool colors reflect low levels. Patterns form as weather systems move both levels around in air masses.
Barrow scientists contribute to the NOAA-developed CarbonTracker, which, like a checkbook, keeps tabs on both the input and removal of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. In this example, warm colors show high carbon dioxide concentrations while cool colors reflect low levels. Patterns form as weather systems move both levels around in air masses. (NOAA)

A tool for science and policy, the CarbonTracker, along with long-term monitoring, gives a picture of how carbon uptake and release, such as from plants and wildfires, are linked to a changing climate, with important implications for resource management. Open online access to the CarbonTracker means anyone can follow and benefit from the content. Over time, it will be possible to track regional emissions, producing an independent measure of a policy’s effectiveness provided by the atmosphere itself. 

Verifying Air Purity — Ross Burgener, NOAA technician, checks a temperature sensor that works with meteorological instruments that track wind speed and direction. The instruments help gauge air purity.  Impurities can radically skew greenhouse gas measurements.
Verifying Air Purity — Ross Burgener, NOAA technician, checks a temperature sensor that works with meteorological instruments that track wind speed and direction. The instruments help gauge air purity. Impurities can radically skew greenhouse gas measurements. (NOAA)
Guiding recovery of the ozone layer

Decades ago, there was the future threat of getting sunburned in minutes, no matter how much sunblock was used. By emitting potent ozone-depleting gases, industrialized nations were inadvertently destroying the ozone layer, which is needed to protect the Earth from harmful amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

In 1987, the U.S. and other nations ratified the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out production of harmful ozone-depleting gases.  Data from Barrow and NOAA’s other atmospheric baseline observatories contributed to identifying the critical need for this agreement.

By monitoring the prevalence of the ozone layer and tracking the decline in ozone-depleting gases, NOAA scientists now play a vital role in guiding ozone recovery.

Barrow data (shown in red) are plotted with data from the other atmospheric baseline observatories and the Niwot Ridge, a long-term ecological research site in Colorado. Data show ozone-depleting gas concentrations rising until the Montreal Protocol restricted their use and production. For years, CFC concentrations at Barrow and other sites have steadily decreased as a result of this international agreement.
Barrow data (shown in red) are plotted with data from the other atmospheric baseline observatories and the Niwot Ridge, a long-term ecological research site in Colorado. Data show ozone-depleting gas concentrations rising until the Montreal Protocol restricted their use and production. For years, CFC concentrations at Barrow and other sites have steadily decreased as a result of this international agreement. (NOAA)
Measuring Ozone-depleting Gases — This gas chromatograph measures concentrations of CFC-11 and CFC-12, potent ozone-depleting gases.
Measuring Ozone-depleting Gases — This gas chromatograph measures concentrations of CFC-11 and CFC-12, potent ozone-depleting gases. (NOAA)

Ozone's critical role

How thick is the ozone layer that controls the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching Earth? For nearly 50 years, Barrow scientists have been using an instrument called the Dobson spectrophotometer to help us know.

Prior to the construction of the new observatory, the spectrophotometer was housed in a structure called the Dobson Dome where staff opened a roof hatch three times daily, allowing a beam of sunlight into the instrument to measure ozone.

In the Dobson Dome, NOAA technician Marty Martinsen observes the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. Sunlight is required for the spectrophotometer to measure ozone.
In the Dobson Dome, NOAA technician Marty Martinsen observes the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. Sunlight is required for the spectrophotometer to measure ozone. (NOAA)
The spectrophotometer has moved to the new laboratory where open windows allow more accurate and continuous measurements. Improved humidity and temperature control also enable better data quality in the harsh Arctic conditions. Observations are suspended from mid-November to mid-January when the sun never rises above the horizon in Barrow.
The spectrophotometer has moved to the new laboratory where open windows allow more accurate and continuous measurements. Improved humidity and temperature control also enable better data quality in the harsh Arctic conditions. Observations are suspended from mid-November to mid-January when the sun never rises above the horizon in Barrow. (NOAA)
 

To sample greenhouse and other gases, air is pumped into the laboratory from different heights on the sampling tower. Samples are collected weekly for later analysis at NOAA in Boulder, Colorado for traces of more than 60 greenhouse, ozone-depleting and other gases.

For nearly half a century, samples have been collected year-round in the exact same manner, whether in the dead of winter or in clouds of mosquitoes in the summer.

NOAA's Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory is about five miles from the city of Utqiaġvik.
NOAA's Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatoryoriginal construction. (NOAA)


Collaborative research

At its distinct location, Barrow has hosted hundreds of scientific studies, contributing research to multiple national and international networks documenting global change. At least 1,200 peer-reviewed publications have used data sets from Barrow.

Several complementary research laboratories and monitoring sites are also co-located at the observatory. NOAA’s Climate Reference Network measures temperature, precipitation, soil conditions and more, helping to monitor national climate trends.

Two on-site satellite antennas pass command data to NOAA/NESDIS polar-orbiting satellites and download remote sensing data from the spacecraft. Each day, from about 520 miles above Earth, the satellites provide two full views of global weather.

The U.S. Department of Energy operates an Atmospheric Radiation Measurement at the observatory's facility, and NOAA scientists support the nearby U.S. Geological Survey's Magnetic Observatory.
The U.S. Department of Energy operates an Atmospheric Radiation Measurement at the observatory's facility, and NOAA scientists support the nearby U.S. Geological Survey's Magnetic Observatory. (NOAA)

 

Watch this video showing a quote with closing throughts from from Benjamin Friedman, Deputy Under Secretary for Operations.


For a more immersive experience, visit the Barrow, Alaska, as a window on the world offsite link StoryMap on the ESRI website.