Satellites dedicated to the Arctic would provide weather updates and communications capabilities for the circumpolar region. (Photo: Antrey/iStockphoto)

By 2018, expect regular Twitter updates from Arctic explorers reading: “It’s –40 at the North Pole. Brrr!!! #ineedmorelayers.”

Canada is studying the feasibility of commissioning the world’s first civilian satellites dedicated entirely to the Arctic. A Canadian Space Agency-led proposal suggests launching two satellites that would provide even the most remote places in the circumpolar world with the same weather forecasting and telecommunications coverage available in developed urban areas.

Northern communities, commercial ships navigating the Arctic’s ice-clogged waters, search and rescue teams and offshore oil platform operators would receive weather updates at 15-minute intervals. Communications lines would become more accessible and consistent.

Currently, meteorologists rely on a patchwork of satellite imagery from multiple sources to create daily weather, ice cover and storm activity updates for the Arctic region. Except for Russian satellites, whose data are thought to be reserved for military purposes, no individual satellites at present can produce the same high-resolution images for the Arctic region as for lower latitudes.

By following a certain elliptical orbit around the poles, the proposed satellites would be able to achieve “the kinds of pictures you see on the six o’clock news that show the motion of clouds and storms,” says Mike Manore, a director at the Ottawa-based Meteorological Service of Canada and coordinator for space-based monitoring for Environment Canada. With high resolution and image quality, meteorologists would be able to track Arctic storms, cloud cover and even volcano ash.

“You can visualize and appreciate that the atmosphere is connected globally,” says Manore. “So if you have a better forecast of a storm or an atmospheric condition in the polar region, that influences the downstream forecasts in southern latitudes three to five days out.”

Besides offering weather updates and high-speed internet, the satellites would also monitor space weather, tracking radiation and solar winds that can destroy and even shut down other remote-sensing, communications and navigation satellites and affect power grids on Earth. (The sun ejects highly charged particles; when they hit Earth’s magnetic field, the impact can induce electrical currents in the atmosphere and on the ground that can short out large transformers.) Much as icebreakers use satellite information to avoid Arctic storms, satellites would use space weather data to avoid harmful radiation.

According to the Canadian Space Agency, the mission is technically feasible. The next step is to present a cost analysis to the federal government.

If approved, says Manore, the two satellites would have global benefits, as their data would be shared with the World Meteorological Organization. “It seems to be an important contribution to the global meteorological community and to the public safety and information services that come from that.”

From the archives

Mineral resources and mining activity in the Canadian Eastern Arctic

In August 1944, the Canadian Geographical Journal ran a feature that essentially inventories the resources of the eastern Arctic. Described as a “barren, bleak and little-developed region,” the region was cut off from the rest of the country in the winter, “except,” J. Lewis Robinson writes, “for the god-send of radio.”

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