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Brent Nakashook, an Inuit who lives in Cambridge Bay in the Canadian Arctic, doesn’t particularly trust the local weather reports. Several times, he has called off weekend trips to fish for char or hunt musk ox after seeing storms predicted—only to find the Sun shining. “You’ve just shot your whole weekend based on the forecast,” he says.
The Arctic is warming faster than any place else on Earth, exposing isolated populations to erratic weather, prolonged muddy seasons, and thin ice. Yet in Canada, reliable weather and climate observations, already sparse, are dwindling further because of inadequate technology and cuts in the budget for weather stations. The trend frustrates northern Indigenous communities and threatens studies of how the Arctic climate is changing, researchers and residents say. “Can we reliably estimate how much snow has changed? I’m not confident we can,” says Robert Way, a climate scientist at Queen’s University.
The overall number of weather stations in Canada has fallen by half since the 1980s, to levels last seen in the 1950s, because of budget cuts and an increased focus on satellite data sources. “They’ve fallen off a cliff,” says Julian Brimelow, who leads the Northern Hail Project at Western University and until recently worked at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).
Some of the provinces have helped cover this gap, but few of these stations feed into weather forecasts. Precipitation records have gotten so bad that ECCC stopped including a rain and snow section in its climate bulletins in 2017, and researchers now use weather models to predict where snow might be. Although the agency is seeking money to stem these losses, “it’s trying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” Brimelow says. “It’s going to take a generation to dig themselves out.”
In a response to Science, ECCC acknowledged the issues with snow measurements, and said precipitation records would return following a reconciliation of automated data with historical records. It said it had begun to integrate weather data from some 90 nonfederal sources in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. And it noted several proposed satellite missions to improve snow and weather observations, including the Arctic Observing Mission and the Terrestrial Snow Mass Mission.
A shift from stations operated by volunteers to automated instruments has also compromised observations. Although automated stations can provide frequent records of temperature and humidity, their measurements are less diverse than those at crewed stations, Way says. That’s why the number of weather stations that provide reliable measurements of anything much beyond temperature in the far north has plummeted, even as the number of stations there has grown slightly (see chart, right).
Developing a sensor to measure snow depth is particularly tricky. Previously, weather station attendants would pick a representative spot to measure. But the ultrasonic sensor now used at more than 80% of stations across the north can only measure one fixed spot. That spot often ends up being at airports, where winds can easily blow snow away, especially in the Arctic, says Ross Brown, a retired ECCC snow researcher. “Snowfall there comes earlier in the season and spends the rest of time blowing around.”
Other kinds of Arctic data have always been sparse. Tide gauges are much spottier in the north, leading to missed predictions of storm surges, Way says. And although ECCC’s Canadian Ice Service provides sea ice forecasts to ships, it has not adapted these forecasts for northern Inuit communities, says Katherine Wilson, a former Ice Service employee who now works at SmartICE, a nonprofit that helps Inuit people map ice thickness to track conditions for travel or hunting. “Northern communities always end up at the bottom of the to-do list.”
In operation for nearly a decade, SmartICE now works in more than 30 Inuit communities, says Andrew Arreak, its operations lead in the Qikiqtaaluk region, which encompasses Baffin Island. The program trains residents to tow a sled carrying a sensor that captures ice thickness. It teaches residents to adapt weekly Ice Service maps for their own use. And it connects younger people with elders and hunters who can pass on traditional knowledge of how to travel on the ice. But the work is funded by research grants that could eventually dry up. “We have no operational funding,” Wilson says.
ECCC’s Meteorological Service is very aware of the deficiencies in its northern network, says Paul Joe, a retired ECCC radar specialist who has tested equipment in Arctic research sites. “The basic statement that the observing network in the Arctic is inadequate, no one would disagree with that.” Some of the problems can be blamed on a lack of collaboration between government agencies, says Jim Abraham, president of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and ECCC’s former director general of weather and environmental monitoring. “There is technology to help northerners. But it hasn’t been implemented or there hasn’t been money assigned to it.”
Gita Ljubicic, a geographer at McMaster University, has been leading a survey of residents in eight northern communities to see what weather data they want. The report, due out later this year, identifies a strong desire for better real-time weather information, she says. And those stations shouldn’t just be at the airport, Arreak says. “Nobody is going hunting or harvesting or camping near or around the airport.”
Those communities also hanker for weather radar to track incoming squalls, Way says. Populous southern Canada holds dozens of advanced radar installations, but Canada’s four Inuit-governed regions have none—even though many of these communities rely heavily on airplanes to deliver food and other goods. Way points out that even sparsely populated parts of Alaska or northern Europe have radars. But ECCC noted that severe thunderstorms are rare in north Canada, and so the value of installing radars there is lower than in southern locations.
Nakashook, who helped administer the survey in Cambridge Bay, says his fellow residents are aware of a nearby defense radar site, built to detect incoming Russian missiles, and want similar early warnings for weather. But until the systems improve, Nakashook has a new strategy for planning his weekend hunting and fishing expeditions. Now, he says, “If I see ugly weather forecasted, I just get ready anyways.”