Antarctic Meteorology Research Center (Global Warming)

The Antarctic meteorology Research Center (AMRC) is part of the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Graduate School. The AMRC collects most of its data from automatic weather stations. The center is funded by the National Science Foundation to make available daily composite images from weather satellite data. AMRC also monitors icebergs and has tracked the large iceberg B-15 since it calved in March 2000.

The AMRC was established in the 1992-93 austral summer season and initially consisted of work stations able to organize and display Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer data, based on the existing satellite imagery acquisition system. This was followed by the acquisition and integration of a system that provided data collection, data display and archiving, scientific applications, network communications, and remote user access. The AMRC runs the Automatic Weather Station Project, which places automatic weather station (AWS) units in remote areas of Antarctica in support of meteorological research and operations. The AWS data are recorded by the ARGOS Data Collection System (DCS) on board the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) series of polar-orbiting satellites.

Antarctica is the highest and coldest continent in the world. 97 percent of its territory is covered with ice with an average elevation of 2,300 meters and an average annual temperature of minus 31 degrees F (minus 35 degrees C). Since large portions of Antarctica are difficult to reach regularly by humans, the idea of an automated system appealed to many, and thus the AWS project was born. Maintaining staffed sites for collecting meteorological observations was considered too expensive. An automatic weather station would allow the gathering of important weather information without having to have a person on duty at each site.


These stations have proven to be an invaluable resource for researchers and forecasters, as well as the public for the retrieval of important meteorological information about the Antarctic. At the end of the 2003-04 field season, just under 60 stations were operational in the Antarctic. Three new sites, Wanderer, Vito, and Emilie were added during the 200304 field season. As of 2004, Amundsen-Scott Station at the south pole was the only year-round interior station in Antarctica with personnel. The remaining year-round stations are located on the Antarctic coast at sites that can be reached by ship.

Charles R. Stearns, the principal investigator and founder of the AMRC, was the man behind the AWS. A renowned polar researcher for over two decades, Stearns began the AWS project at the University of Wisconsin in 1980 by purchasing the first AWS designed at Stanford University. These stations were then modified for transfer on location in Antarctica. The purpose of the AWS’s was to allow for the first meteorological data to be acquired for the continent. The data from the AWS systems are transferred back to the University of Wisconsin for processing and distribution to the public free of charge. The weather stations are 10 feet tall and are equipped to record temperature, humidity, air pressure, and wind speed and direction. The cost of each station is approximately $15,000.

The automatic stations were mounted onto the frozen water of an iceberg or ice sheet and also include a global positioning device to track their migration with the ice. In addition to the 50 stations which are part of the University of Wisconsin’s network, there are others that are used for research programs at British, French, German and Japanese sites. The AMRC stresses that the project entails a great degree of international collaboration and cooperation. After processing the temperature readings and barometric levels collected by the stations, the AMRC passes them on to international weather labs and researchers. The Man-Computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS) is a versatile computer-based system developed by the University of Wisconsin that is the basis of AMRC. It allows the organizing, manipulating, and integrating of environmental data. It receives the flow of Antarctic meteorological information from polar-orbiting satellites, automatic weather stations, operational station synoptic observations, and research project data.

The real-time data used to forecast also can be used to develop accurate forecasting models for future climate change. Computer programmers integrate these data into equations and design programs to predict climate change phenomena, such as global warming. It was thanks to the data collected by the automatic weather stations that the center was able to conclude that El Nino, which contributes to the warming up of the tropics, also extends its effects to the Arctic region.

The position of the AMRC and its staff with regards to iceberg breakage and global warming has been to deny a clear connection between the two. In 2002, it became apparent that another massive iceberg had broken off from the Ross Ice Shelf, reducing the Antarctic formation to about the size it was in 1911 when explorer Robert Scott’s team first mapped it. Yet, through Stearns and other researchers, the AMRC stated that the breakage is part of the normal iceberg formation or "calving" that comes as thick layers of ice gradually slide down from the high Antarctic plateau, and is not related to climate changes or global warming.

Stearns and his assistant Mathew Lazzara have repeatedly stressed that icebergs break due to natural phenomena, not because of global warming. Admitting that the iceberg detaching in 2002 was unusually large, Lazzara maintained that the phenomenon was entirely natural, although not one frequently witnessed. Lazzara explained that "as the ice shelf develops and gets influences from the ocean it starts to deteriorate where the ice meets the ocean waters. The ocean tides act upon it, causing it to crack and wearing it away. The ocean currents and the tides are responsible for getting it going and putting it into motion." Charles Stearns explicitly denied that global warming was a factor in the break off and concluded that the piece of iceberg might have been in motion for the past 30 years: "Climate change is not a factor in the break off, although people try to use the event to further their objectives. If the ice did not flow off Antarctica, all the water in the oceans would be deposited there. Be glad that all the water in the world does not collect on Antarctica."

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