Climate Change

‘We still know very little about the cryosphere’

Down To Earth speaks to Rodica Nitu, head, Global Cryosphere Watch at the World Meteorological Organization

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Monday 18 September 2023

Head Global Cryosphere Watch at the World Meteorological Organization

While sea ice change in Antarctica is visible, little data is available to understand the cryosphere, says Rodica Nitu, head, Global Cryosphere Watch at the World Meteorological Organization. Edited excerpts:

Akshit Sangomla (AS): When did the global monitoring of the Earth’s cryosphere begin and why was it necessary?

Rodica Nitu (RN): The realisation that the cryosphere (ice and snow formations all over the planet) needs to be monitored came around 50-70 years ago and it is the least observed of the Earth’s systems.

Most of this monitoring has happened through satellites and modelling of the physical processes which have yet to be supported by ground-level observations.

The current programmes observing the cryosphere are very different from each other and have generally been bottom-up. Therefore, the observed data is fragmented and the understanding is incomplete.

Also, the regions with the most impacts have the least amount of data. Around 15 years ago, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) took note that this was a challenge that required a global approach.

Canada took a bit of a leading role in establishing a WMO-coordinated platform known as the Global Cryosphere Watch in 2011 for encouraging observations, standardisation and exchange of data, enhancing prediction models, developing an understanding of the cryosphere and influencing policies for planning and adaptation.

AS: What are the main challenges in monitoring of the global cryosphere?

RN: The main challenge is expanding the network of research institutions working on this subject to have more ground-level observations and building trust and understanding for the sharing of data among them.

The data that comes in has to be geographically diverse, continuous and long-term. This would reduce the uncertainties in our model projections, which would help us plan better for, say, relocation of impacted communities.

The funding of the programmes is another major challenge, as they can only be run as part of long-term research stations. These research stations, which act as small communities, have to be powered and supplied with other essentials which can be as much as 10 times the cost of setting up a station elsewhere. The third challenge comes from conditions in these regions, which are extremely difficult to work in.

AS: What should be done to overcome these challenges?

RN: Better collaboration is required for a cohesive understanding of the cryosphere. With regards to funding, national governments need to make the decision. Our politicians have to understand that unless the science is translated into policy statements that say that this is expensive but so important for us, we cannot break the cycle of insufficient investments in the polar regions or the mountains.

This was first published in the 16-30 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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