As scientists continue to track changes in global temperature, data from places like Barrow, Alaska is vital. This northern-most United States is on the front lines of global warming, but researchers recently found their data collection was turning up nothing — no data at all. It turns out the temperatures in barrow warmed so quickly, NOAA’s algorithms filtered out all the data because it looked fake.
The city of Barrow is at the very northern tip of Alaska with a total population of around 4,300. Its position above the 71st northern latitude puts it well within the arctic circle and makes it a prime location for climate change research. As global temperatures rise, it’s the polar regions that see the most change. The Arctic is particularly vulnerable as there is less land mass to retain ice and snow that reflect the sun’s rays.
The NOAA Climate Monitoring Branch has myriad sensors in the Barrow area to track temperatures for inclusion in reports. To streamline the process, researchers have developed algorithms that automatically cull outliers from the data. This is something that comes up in any data collection process. Statistical analysis eliminates data that’s significantly outside the norm, so the algorithm just speeds the process along.
These algorithms were designed with the expectation temperatures wouldn’t change as quickly as they are. Last week, the monitoring stations in Barrow stopped contributing data. The temperatures had risen so precipitously, the algorithms interpreted all data points as invalid. In any other situation, a scientist would assume equipment failure, but the hardware was fine. It’s the climate that’s broken.
Scientists have confirmed that 2017 in the Arctic has been the second warmest on record, with the warmest being 2016. This year also saw new lows in sea ice coverage. The average October temperature in Barrow has climbed 7.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000, and November is up 6.9 degrees over the same period. December, when the Arctic should be frigid, has warmed by 4.7 degrees. These don’t sound like huge changes, but just a few degrees over the course of years can cause permanent loss of sea ice. This accelerates warming and affects local wildlife.
The data from Barrow is once again being included in reports. After the failure of climate monitoring algorithms, scientists developed new ones that are more tolerant of temperature spikes like we’ve been seeing. If the trend continues, there will be many more of them in future years.
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