Why we need to create an Arctic aerosol-monitoring network — quickly

Growth in Arctic shipping will create airborne hazards. We’re unprepared to collect data about them.

A cargo ship sails through multi-year ice in Canada’s the Northwest Passage. Shipping will bring opportunity to the Arctic — but also more airborne pollution. (Timothy Keane / Fednav)

As a third-year graduate student working on climate modeling, I’ve come to realize that our ability to make predictions about the future is only as good as the data we collect. Data is power. Data helps us compare, check and constrain models and binds us to reality.

But in certain regions, the reality is that we just don’t have much data. Don’t get me wrong: State-of-the-art climate models are meticulously verified, tested and run in ensembles to obtain the most likely predictions. Scientists are starkly aware of uncertainties and shortcomings of these models. However, in regions of intense change, such as the Arctic, we need more environmental information before we can make informed predictions. One of the major changes on the horizon is an increase in Arctic shipping traffic. The decline in sea ice extent and thickness is expected to increase Arctic transits via the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, and Transpolar route.

Shipping has become integral to the global economy. While shipping serves a fundamental role, this sector is also responsible for the release of significant amounts of sulfate, nitrate, black carbon, particulate matter and aerosols, which are known to have both human health and environmental impacts.

Imagine you live in a remote coastal community adjacent to the Northwest Passage. You may soon find yourself surrounded by deposited black carbon, suffering from magnified asthma, and orienting yourself amid changing rain, snow and temperature patterns. To what degree might these things impact you? As of now, we don’t know. But, if we are unable to stop the economic push towards leveraging new Arctic sea routes, we must be prepared to observe the associated environmental and human health impacts.

The establishment of coordinated Arctic aerosol monitoring stations should accompany increases in Arctic shipping activity.

Aerosols are small solid or liquid particles that stay suspended in our atmosphere. On hazy, foggy or smoky days, you’re actually seeing aerosols. In these cases, water vapor and ash are the aerosols that you see suspended in the air. Aerosols can be both naturally occurring, or derived from human sources, such as the burning of fossil fuels. Inhaling these substances is known to cause health issues, such as aggravated asthma, lung cancer and cardiopulmonary problems. To put this into context, in 2007, global shipping emissions models estimated that particulate matter from global shipping was annually responsible for 60,000 premature deaths. Aerosol impacts on climate are also substantial, though the exact extent is still debated among scientists. Different types of aerosols have different impacts, some contributing to heating, some to cooling. Additionally, they tend to interact with clouds in ways that scientists don’t completely understand and that our models aren’t yet fully capturing. Recent studies have taken our best guess at the underlying physics and provided future predictions, but those best guesses need to be compared to good data to be sufficiently constrained by reality. Yet, until we have extensive observational data and emissions inventories, that can’t happen, and these models cannot be comprehensively validated.

In 2014, Arctic shipping comprised only 9.3 percent of the world’s shipping traffic, with only 17 vessels traversing the Northwest Passage along the Arctic Canadian coast. However, global leaders in shipping, from COSCO to Maersk, are preparing to increase Arctic operations, which will bring an increase in aerosol emissions. Once released, aerosols in the Arctic are estimated to stay aloft for 1 to 2 days, after which they are deposited on land or ice via rain, snow or sedimentation. Therefore, marine and coastal ecosystems and communities will likely endure the greatest exposure to aerosols from increased shipping. However, understanding exactly what these health and environmental impacts are is vital to creating appropriate policy and governance strategies. Collecting adequate data will also contribute to the scientific understanding of aerosol microphysics as a whole. The Arctic may soon become a giant experiment in which we increase aerosol concentration, but are we prepared to monitor the situation and collect the necessary data? Not yet.

Identifying the type, size and concentration of aerosols in the atmosphere is challenging. LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging systems, use a micro-pulsed laser to detect the presence of aerosols and clouds in the atmosphere. These give general information about location and size of aerosol plumes within their detection range, but do not easily identify the type and distribution of detected species. Cassette measurements, in which air samples are taken and aerosols of particular sizes are filtered and analyzed provide more specific information, yet lack access to “the bigger picture.” While a smattering of stations monitor atmospheric black carbon, the entire Arctic can boast only two LIDAR-based long-term monitoring stations, maintained by the NASA Micro-Pulsed Lidar Network (MPLN). Located in Alesund, Norway, and Fairbanks, Alaska, these two most northern sites provide little spatial resolution and are not paired with consistent aerosol cassette sampling techniques. There are also scientific ventures in which planes equipped with aerosol measurement instrumentation provide supplementary information, but these occur too infrequently to provide, daily or monthly resolute data sets. Therefore, a monitoring scheme coordinating both LIDAR and cassette measurements would be a useful addition to the current Arctic observational sites.

If I ran the zoo, I’d plan a targeted pilot program, to establish monitoring stations in each of nine Baffin Island communities, which lie near the Northwest Passage, and may see some of the largest increases in aerosol concentration with shipping.

Because of the nature of Arctic atmospheric circulation, it is expected that shipping emissions will be transported from East to West, likely carrying pollutants directly over this land mass. I’d propose expanding the existing LIDAR network with support from NASA MPLN, as well as to train local community members to take atmospheric cassette samples and process data, creating a two-pronged data collection plan. These stations would not only collect valuable spatially resolved data points but would also provide economic input to local communities. Specifically, collecting cassette and processing LIDAR data would provide technical employment opportunities for local inhabitants, while the presence of a scientific station will draw researchers to the area. Additionally, atmospheric measurements can be used as an educational tool to engage with local schools and support the growth of burgeoning scientists. This data could be coordinated with satellite ice climatology measurements as well as public health records to understand both regional aerosol-climate relationships, and changes in aerosol related health risks.

It could be an amazing boon to the scientific community and greater public, but, we must act quickly. The economic push towards using newly available Arctic shipping routes is unlikely to wait until we are ready to observe its influence. It is our responsibility to act now, to prepare for the future, and to supply future generations with the data and observations to draw accurate conclusions and shape our future world.

Colleen Golja is a PhD. candidate at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. She is broadly interested in computational modeling to understand climate change.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by students of the Arctic Innovators Course at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.