Every day at one o’clock, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute on Spitsbergen release a balloon – as they have done every day for the last 25 years. Last year UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assisted them. This Wednesday, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks will be the one to launch the balloon into the stratosphere.
The helium-filled balloon is not only very large, it also carries sensors more than 30 kilometres high into the sky. The sensors transmit data that show the researchers in Ny-Ålesund how warm or cold each atmospheric stratum is and what direction and strength of wind is blowing in each. In the last ten years, the collected data has changed significantly. It is becoming colder high up in the stratosphere. Heat is shifting downward – and it is having a negative impact on people and animals on the ground, especially in the Arctic. Although the earth has warmed on average by about 1 degrees since industrialisation, on Spitsbergen average temperatures have risen more than 2 degrees in the last 20 years. When sea ice melts, less sunlight is reflected into the stratosphere, heating the ocean instead of the air. This means warming causes more warming.
The people in Ny-Ålesund are especially hard hit by climate change in the Arctic. Yet they are also pioneers when it comes to studying climate change. The former mining settlement and northernmost village on the globe has developed into a hub dedicated to research. Ten different countries operate 14 research stations here. The long dark winter and the cold wind off the surrounding glaciers have forged a close-knit community from the international scientists who live there; everyone helps each other.
On her Arctic trip, Minister Hendricks will spend much of her time with researchers. There are many questions to ask and there is much to be learned. Karin Lochte, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, is accompanying the minister. Lochte remarked: "You can’t understand climate change without understanding the changes in the Arctic." Thus, extreme cold at winter’s onset in New York and non-existent winter in Europe may be the result of warming of the atmosphere over the Arctic.
Minister Hendricks praised the work of the researchers: "They show us how vulnerable our planet is and what we will have to adapt to in future. The Arctic is an early warning system for climate change, and it is much closer to us than we think. In our complex climate system, everything is connected."