To The Ends Of The Earth
Very Interesting|November/December 2020
Scientists are going to extreme lengths to find out how climate change is affecting our planet
Dr Helen Pilcher

FAIRWEATHER FRIENDS

ST HELENA, SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN

Every day at 11:15am, a team of meteorologists on the Atlantic island of St Helena release a giant latex weather balloon into the sky (previous page). They wear goggles, flash hoods and overcoats ‘just in case’, because the balloons are full of highly explosive hydrogen (this lighter-than-air gas causes the balloon to ascend). As the balloon rises to a height of more than 30km, a mini weather station, or ‘radiosonde’, attached to the balloon’s neck, sends back second-by-second information on temperature, humidity, wind speed and pressure.

St Helena’s meteorological station (part of which is seen in the image below, being tended to by the station’s technical manager, Marcos Henry) is one of 190 such stations worldwide monitoring the Earth’s upper atmosphere as part of the Global Climate Observing System. Conditions here are tricky: St Helena is buffeted by strong winds, and its remote location, 2,000km off Africa’s southwest coast, means that imported goods are pricey. But stations such as this one are playing a crucial role in monitoring the long-term changes in our climate system.

A SLICE OF TIME

GEPATSCHFERNER GLACIER, AUSTRIAN ALPS

The ice hidden inside Austria’s mountain glaciers is an irreplaceable archive of local climate data. “There are 6,000 years’ worth of information collected in 12m of ice,” says Dr Andrea Fischer from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research in Innsbruck. “Every year, we lose 1m because of climate change.” To preserve this precious legacy, Fischer and her colleagues (above) have been drilling ice cores (top left) from the Gepatschferner glacier in the Austrian Alps, and then sending them away for storage and study (bottom left). “It’s demanding work,” says Fischer. “We have to deal with high elevations and adverse weather. Every one of our team is an experienced mountaineer.”

The researchers hope to use the cores to glean information about past plant life, precipitation and human activity, as well as the waxing and waning of the glaciers themselves. “If we can understand how the landscape recovered from previous bouts of warming, it should help us to prepare for the future,” says Fischer.

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