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From Europe and Asia, countries head to Svalbard to monitor the Arctic

One of the sites of the EU-funded Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System (SIOS) project. Photo: Ove Hermansen/NILU
One of the sites of the EU-funded Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System (SIOS) project. Photo: Ove Hermansen/NILU

From Europe and Asia, 14 countries – encompassing a total of 26 institutions have come together to set up an Arctic observatory that will combine data from the sea, the atmosphere and the ground to provide vital evidence about the rate of climate change.

From its base in Svalbard, a group of frozen islands located about midway between Norway and the North Pole, the EU-funded Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System (SIOS) facility will monitor climate change in what will be one of the biggest Europe-based research collaborations of its kind.

‘The SIOS project is a big deal because of the rate of the environmental change happening in the Arctic region – the need for better datasets and models for scientists to study is urgent,’ said SIOS coordinator Jon Børre Ørbæk. 

‘SIOS is the largest effort to bring together all the partners operating in the Svalbard area,’ said Ørbæk. ‘It has not been done before.’

Svalbard is one of the world’s main centres for Arctic observation because it is so far north that it is exposed to influences from the northern hemisphere as a whole, and the northern part of the Arctic is considered an early warning system for global warming as changes often happen there first. In addition, earth monitoring satellites typically orbit around the poles, making Svalbard well placed to access satellite data.

At the moment, researchers are in a preparatory phase funded by the EU to set out the basic strategy of the system by the autumn of 2014. However, the project’s ultimate goal is to establish a system that can collate data from a vast number of fields related to climate change, perform fieldwork, advanced data analytics and prediction. The hope is that, by creating a hub like this, it will be easier for researchers to collaborate and share information. The idea is that SIOS will eventually become part of a pan-Arctic observing system.

‘The SIOS project is a big deal because of the rate of the environmental change happening in the Arctic region - the need for better datasets and models for scientists to study is urgent.’

Jon Børre Ørbæk, the coordinator of SIOS

When it is completed, SIOS will be based around a central ‘knowledge centre’ in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard, which will collate data and provide help with expedition logistics, staff education, access to research laboratories and existing results. 

From there, it will combine satellite data with data gathered from many of the research facilities already situated on the islands, including the Ny-Ålesund international science village, the University Centre in Svalbard and international research facilities in Longyearbyen, Hornsund and Barentsburg, as well as some facilities at the coal mine sites of Svea and Pyramiden.

‘The project will build on the existing expertise, observations and activities established by the individual partners with research facilities in Svalbard,’ said Kine Stenersen, the executive officer of the SIOS project.

It will take data from meteorological, hydrological, cryospheric, oceanic and other geophysical research, as well as measurements from marine and terrestrial biological processes from a set of observational platforms.

‘Examples of instruments and observations that will be joined under this new framework are ocean buoys, meteorological station networks, lidars (laser sensors) profiling the atmosphere, air quality measuring instruments, terrestrial and marine laboratories,’ said Stenersen.

Vertical coupling, horizontal transport

It aims to both analyse the earth’s atmosphere locally, and the impact that changes in the Arctic can have on other regions of the world.

To look at the local changes, scientists will examine vertical coupling, which is the measurement of changes that occur between the different layers of the earth’s atmosphere.A map illustrating the location of Svalbard.Click the map to view the location of Svalbard.

They will gather data that will help them examine the processes that connect the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere in this region, and find out how these change over seasons and years. That will give them vital data that can be used to help develop climate forecasts.

To examine how the changes in the Arctic affect other regions, scientists look at a process called horizontal transport, which includes mechanisms such as the passage of carbon from one region of the world to another, for example.

SIOS scientists will also be measuring changes in sea-ice cover in the Arctic, and how it affects emissions of gases caused by organisms in the water. They hope to be able to look at how global warming will affect the sea ice in the future.

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