The Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory - An Arctic Members Partnership

by Taneil Uttal1, Alexander Makshtas2 and Tuomas Laurila3

The global community has recognized over the last few years the importance of the weather and climate of the Earth’s Polar Regions. Particularly sensitive to human activities, the Polar Regions have also demonstrated the potential for impacting reciprocally on the livability of the more heavily populated lower and mid-latitudes. In response, the WMO Polar Observations, Research and Services (PORS) was developed to “…promote and coordinate relevant programmes that are carried out in the Antarctic and Arctic regions by nations and by groups of nations.” The Polar Activities resolution of the WMO Executive Council Panel of Experts on Polar Observations, Research and Services also encourages “Members, particularly those that have operational activities in Polar Regions, to consider the possibility of cooperating with other Members in sharing the costs of re-opening and operating previously functioning stations, in expanding existing stations or in deploying new observing and communication systems.” The Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory in the Russian North on the shore of the Laptev Sea is a unique example of the kind of multi-national effort that is recommended by the Polar Activities resolution.

The impetus for the Tiksi Observatory planning, which preceded the resolution, was the International Polar Year – actually a two-year period between March 2007 and March 2009. The Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Roshydromet) submitted a focused proposal to the International Polar Year committee entitled “Developing the Atmospheric Observatory of Climate Monitoring in Tiksi,” which the committee clustered with related Arctic observatory proposals under the umbrella activity “International Arctic Systems for Observing the Atmosphere.” As a result, the modernization and integration of the Tiksi Station into a pan-Arctic observing network became a priority not only for Russia but also for US and Finnish agency partners who also recognized the requirement for a broad spectrum of regionally specific Arctic observing perspectives.


The original Polyarka Station

The existing “Polyarka” Station, which served as the foundation for the new Tiksi Observatory, is seven km from the town of Tiksi and has long been a site of important environmental measurements. Established in 1932, the Station is the location of one of the longest environmental records in the Arctic. During its operating zenith in the 1960s to 1980s, Polyarka had 50-80 scientists, engineers, technicians and their families living on-site. It had its own kindergarten, grocery store and boiler station. There were several distinct departments with different observing responsibilities. Observations were made of surface meteorology, including air and surface temperatures, humidity, wind directions/speeds, pressure and precipitation; these were augmented by additional measurements of snow depth and daily solar radiation. Records were kept of visibility and cloud cover at first with visual observations then with additional instrumented observation starting in 1967. In 1966, surface meteorological observations were increased to an intensive eight times a day schedule. Atmospheric ozone measurements began in 1993. Upper-atmosphere observations were initiated when the Station opened in 1935 and since 1946 there has been a WMO standard 2 times/day launch programme. Polyarka Station was also a central communications collector station that ingested regional meteorological data being transmitted from a number of surrounding and even more remote weather stations scattered through the northern Yakutia region of Russia.

The characteristics of the shore-fast ice and underlying waters of the Sogo bay were also regularly measured, including sea surface temperature, salinity, sea surface level and the morphological characteristics of fast ice, snow cover and local sea ice extent over space and time in the winter. A fully digitized archive of these multi-decadal data sets has been laboriously created from the hand written records, and the original methods and standards for measuring atmospheric and oceanographic environmental parameters have been supplemented rather than replaced with modern observing instruments. Digital archives have also been created containing the long-term meteorological data for 18 stations in the region surrounding Tiksi to provide additional context about regional climate.

These consistent and continuous records of the atmospheric and oceanic environment at the Polyarka Station and surrounding areas provide an invaluable foundation for interpreting the new modern measurements that are being implemented as a part of the Tiksi Observatory Programme. The dedication of countless weather station personnel that contributed to these decadal long environmental records in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet is almost impossible to imagine.

During the 1990s the Polyarka Station was forced to considerably scale back activities due to economic restrictions and it regressed to a simple outpost weather station. This situation persisted until 2005 when a Russian, US and Finnish team of programme managers and scientists visited Polyarka to assess the site and discuss the possibilities of an international partnership to modernize and revitalize the station as an International Atmospheric Observatory.

The planning and implementation process

Although the Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory project was conceived as part of a grand international scientific concept articulated by the International Polar Year, it was only made possible by a framework of Russian and US policies and bi-lateral agreements. The official project “Establishing a Modern Weather Station and Research Observatory in Tiksi, Russia” was defined under a Memorandum of Understanding between the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Roshydromet in 2006 with the following stated goals:

  • Development of a Hydrometeorological Research Observatory in Tiksi, equipped by modern instruments of observations and communications, a power supply system, laboratory and office facilities suitable for supporting the collection of quantitative data on atmospheric structure and processes as well as associated ocean and land parameters in order to further studies of weather and climate; and
  • Integration of observatory measurements into International Networks, such as the Global Atmosphere Watch (atmospheric gases and aerosols), Baseline Surface Radiation Network (atmospheric radiation), Climate Reference Network (climate-grade weather observations), Global Terrestrial Networks for Permafrost, and the Micropulse Lidar Networks (clouds and aerosols).

The project was characterized from the beginning by contributing partnerships without which progress would have been impossible. The US National Science Foundation operating from a “Proposal for a Joint US – Russian Climate Observatory” and the Sakha (Yakut) Republic of the Russian Federation (which governs the Tiksi region) both contributed substantially to infrastructure development. NOAA, Roshydromet, the Finnish Meteorological Institute and the Russian Academy of Sciences all made significant and ongoing contributions to new measurement programmes and training. Roshydromet shouldered the full burden of the facility’s increasing operating costs for the first years.

After five years – involving the combined efforts of the US State Department, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a literal army of Russian, American and Finnish institute directors, programme managers, regional officials, military officers, scientists, lawyers, engineers, technicians, students, on-site staff, international affairs liaisons, station managers, logistics officers, finance officers, property managers, data base managers, IT specialists, electricians, builders, plumbers, logistics managers, travel arrangers, shipping/customs agents, drivers and secretaries – the official opening of the Tiksi Observatory occurred on 25 August 2010.

The Science of Tiksi

The long historical scientific context provided by the Soviet Polyarka Station, the relative accessibility provided by the Tiksi airport, the geographical notion of closing a loop in a chain of Arctic observatories, and the high-level policy drivers all made Tiksi a logical location for an international facility. However, the most important factor in the site selection was the opportunities that the Tiksi region provided for understanding regionally specific Arctic processes. The Arctic region is comprised of unique sub-regions including the Canadian Archipelago, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Bering Strait region flanked by the Alaska and Chukotka peninsulas, Northern Scandinavia, Svalbard and the Central Arctic Basin (Ocean). Tiksi is a unique Arctic region, existing on the margin of the vast Eurasian continent that has the coldest recorded temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere winter.

From the point of view of global circulations, Tiksi is located in a boundary region at the confluence of Atlantic and Pacific air masses. This results in a wide variety of atmospheric conditions with variable cloud, aerosol and pollutant characteristics creating a natural laboratory to study the influence that the various source regions of Russia, Northern America, Europe and Central Asia have on atmospheric processes. Tiksi is also at the mouth of the Lena River, the second largest river draining into the Arctic Ocean. Its 524 km3/year of mean discharge is second only to the Yenisei (586 km3/year). The Lena is the only major Russian river for which most of the drainage basin is underlain by permafrost, making for a complex hydrological system that may be particularly vulnerable to climate warming. Tremendous stores of carbon are presently locked in the permafrost of this river basin, and the evolution of precipitation and evapouration patterns are very important for determining regional changes in the surface fluxes of CO2 and methane. Tiksi is on the edge of the Laptev Sea – an area of such large ice production that it has been termed “the ice factory of the Arctic Ocean.” Changes in ice production in this region may influence deep convection processes in the Greenland Sea, which is seen as a possible factor in the long-term variability of the global climate.

To summarize, Tiksi is an ideal location for intensive research on the interconnected components of the Arctic climatic system, including atmospheric and hydrological processes, mechanisms of permafrost degradation and coastal erosion, development of annual sea-ice formation and dissipation, and continental shelf processes. All of these play a key role in defining and determining local and global climate evolution.

Current Status

In addition to the new facilities and instruments, and equally important, are the data centres supporting the Tiksi Observatory. The quantity and variety of data being collected by the Tiksi Observatory is steadily increasing. The Tiksi Data Centre at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, is responsible for primary collection, storage and distribution of data. Data is also accessible from archives supported by NOAA (Boulder, Colorado) and by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (Helsinki) with transmission of original data and processed filtered data between the centres occurring in near real-time.

Data are also being transmitted to global network observing programmes such as the Baseline Surface Radiation Network (BSRN), the Aerosol Robotic Network (AeroNET) and the Climate Reference Network (CRN). The Tiksi Observatory is building ground-up synergies with the Global Atmosphere Watch Station Information System (GAWSIS), which coordinates metadata across the six world data centers. Implementation of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) metadata standards will further facilitate integration of the Tiksi data into world data centers.

First results

In September 2012, when the Tiksi Observatory partners met to discuss the results of the first year of activity, it was clear that many intriguing patterns are emerging in both the multi-decadal analysis of historical data and annual cycle signatures of the new measurement programmes. So far, the detailed records are not showing any significant trends in air temperature, active layer freeze-thaw cycles or seasonal thickness of the shore fast ice. Spring time surface ozone depletion events are occurring but with a shifted annual cycle compared to sites in Barrow, Alaska. The measurements at the Tiksi Observatory are not indicating increases in methane fluxes that would support the hypothesis that a warming Arctic will result in the release of methane sequestered in the permafrost to the atmosphere. Tiksi has comparatively high levels of the persistent organic pollutant DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which has implications about global redistribution of persistent organic pollutants.

The atmosphere surface exchanges are – as expected – very small during the cold winter months when snow and ice create a barrier, but the summer fluxes show clear diurnal cycles with a net CO2 uptake. Atmospheric temperature pulses have been observed to propagate through the upper levels of permafrost and the highly variable distribution of different types of vegetation appear to have an observable effect on atmosphere-surface fluxes and the depth of the active layer. Aerosol characteristics have well-defined seasonal cycles that can be explained by the variation of different source regions – land, ocean, local contamination – and tropospheric processes driven by solar radiation. These random samplings of preliminary results will now be knit together into a comprehensive picture of the dominant environmental processes in the Tiksi region.

The Future

The international observing programmes being supported at the beginning of 2013 include regional Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW), BSRN, AeroNET, and CRN. The current development plan is to expand contributions to GAW (in particular by developing from a regional to global station), Global Cryosphere Watch - CryoNET, the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring (CALM) programme, the Arctic Monitoring of Atmospheric Pollutants (AMAP) and the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation (GNIP). Other measurement programmes are being evaluated such as upper-air ozonesondes and increased remote sensing measurements of cloud and aerosols. Another goal is to further develop the Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory into a world class facility by expanding the partnership beyond the original Russian-US-Finnish troika with participation from other countries; collaboration enquires have been extended by Germany and Japan.


The Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory has been developed based on fundamental WMO observing and data sharing principals and was prescient in resuscitating a prestigious Soviet era station to serve modern requirements for Arctic observations in the 21st century. It should be noted that despite wide-spread agreement between countries, agencies and academic institutions about the shared benefit of the Tiksi Observatory, the actual implementation has been extraordinarily slow and difficult. The environmental agencies of Russia, the US and Finland had clear and identifiable mandates to pursue the goal of long-term, cooperative Arctic climate observations, but did not have jurisdiction or exemptions to allow easy navigation of the consulates, customs, exports, imports and security requirements of each respective country. The individual operating departments of each organization have found it perplexing and difficult to identify the correct procedures to allow implementing partnerships with counterpart foreign agencies. Overall, it has been a substantial commitment and effort to operate “outside the box” – but within agency and national statutes – to accomplish the mission of establishing the Tiksi Hydrometeorological Observatory and bring to fruition the words of the WMO Polar Activities resolution “… cooperating with other Members in sharing the costs of re-opening and operating previously functioning stations.”

Russian, US and Finnish Officials with Yakutia dancers celebrating the official opening of the Tiksi Observatory in August 2010
©Olga Chumachenko

group photo

An integral part of the Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory plan is to maintain an active scientifically engaged programme of research to answer questions about not only the “how” but the “why” of the evolving climate. This research will investigate direct questions such as: “Is black carbon a major contributor to the contracting summer sea-ice extent?”, “How will Arctic communities need to respond to a changing environment?” and “What are Arctic specific contributions to the global greenhouse gas budgets?” In addition, the data of the Tiksi Observatory will undoubtedly lead to unexpected scientific discoveries that lie in wait for the intrepid. These discoveries will owe their existence to the contributions of the hundreds of individuals that have comprised the Tiksi Team.





1 NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory, Taneil.Uttal[at] [back]

2 Roshydromet Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, maksh[at][back]

3 Finnish Meteorological Institute, Tuomas.Laurila[at] [back]


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