Stories & Inspiration

How cloud spotting in Antarctica can help climate scientists

There are a lot of amazing things to see in Antarctica. You can spend a happy hour indulging in the soap opera goings on of a penguin colony or patiently watch the horizon for the spout of a whale. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in just gazing at icebergs as they pass you serenely by on your ship. But one thing I didn’t expect to do on my last Antarctica trip was any organised cloud watching, let alone as part of a citizen science project feeding data to climate scientists.

I’ve already written a blog about my experience taking part in the Southern Ocean Seabird Survey when I sailed on board the ship Seaventure last November on Swoop’s Antarctic Peninsula Classic cruise. But looking out for albatrosses felt like an easier concept to get my head around than just staring up the clouds. Where was the science in that, I wondered?

Clouds and satellites

Our guide Nicole gave us the low down on our first day crossing the Drake Passage. The answer was high above our heads, she told us, somewhere in Earth orbit. We would look at clouds to help calibrate weather satellites. By marrying up ground observations with satellite images taken from space, we could help the satellites understand better what they were recording. And better data means better modelling for climate and weather scientists. 

The addition of space technology gave us all a little buzz: we also learned we’d be taking part in an official NASA-run science project. 

Taking an observation with the GLOBE Clouds app

A confession: as participation projects go, it was pretty quick. We were given a tablet that was running the GLOBE Clouds app and told to point it at the horizon and take a photo. We repeated this three more times so we captured the sky in the north, south east and west. 

With the help of a bit of even simpler technology – a laminated cloud guide – we could then add details about the types of clouds we were seeing. At different times these varied a lot, from high altitude cirrus and cirrostratus clouds, to low level cumulus and stratus clouds. The final essential reporting was on the conditions at sea level. Being Antarctica, we also inevitably had a few foggy moments. At least it helped us put a spin on what we were experiencing: good weather for satellites.

It was a reminder that a lot of science is about doing the legwork. But it was also easily done, so after taking the recordings I was able to join in with the seabird survey also taking place on the deck. I was still getting my eye in with the different species we were seeing, which was another lesson about cloud spotting. They don’t move as fast as petrels either, making them a lot easier to identify. 

Watching the weather

After the session, I was reminded that while you’ll never beat the big ticket items that we travel to Antarctica to see – the grandeur of the ice and the charm of the penguins – it’s also good to slow down and see the destination in the round. Citizen science is great for that. Even when you’re pointing a tablet at a leaden sky! 

Checking observations agains the cloud identification guide

The big secret to getting involved is that everyone on an Antarctic cruise becomes an amateur weather expert. Every evening before dinner, our Expedition Leader would give us a recap of what we’d seen and done that day and what tomorrow would bring. Or what we hoped it would bring. The one crucial part that no one wanted to miss out on was the weather forecast. All itineraries in Antarctica are governed by the weather, and we’d concentrate on the isobars, wind speeds and wave heights to try to predict which plan the ship’s captain would opt for. 

The GLOBE project

A few weeks after my trip, I was back at home idly watching the clouds and started to wonder just what had happened to the data we’d collected. To find out more, I reached out to Dr Marilé Colón Roble, the project scientist for GLOBE Clouds, based at NASA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. 

The GLOBE program, I discovered, is a citizen science project that has been running for nearly 30 years. The acronym stands for Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, and there are different projects using crowdsourced data to map habitat loss through changing land cover, mosquito habitats for disease control, and tree height to measure changes in biomass – essential to understanding the carbon cycle. 

Dr Colón Robles explained to me why the cloud observations were so important. 

‘We’ve seen through the data that satellites are great at seeing mid level and high level clouds, but it’s very hard to see low level clouds.’ This is where the citizen science observations come in. ‘When you merge these two different points of view together, satellite data and the people on the ground, you really have this complete picture of what’s happening in the atmosphere.’

Never mind the ice: look at the clouds

The GLOBE Clouds app is designed to work offline, so data is only sent when the device is connected to WIFI: an essential feature for somewhere like the Southern Ocean. But this remoteness is one reason why measurements are so badly needed. There just aren’t many people collecting data here compared to other parts of the world. Every data point collected by a cruise ship therefore packs an outsized punch in what it’s delivering. 

When the observations are received, they’re compared with the satellite readings, and the collectors receive an email from NASA sending a copy of the satellite image and asking for extra notes or clarifications. ‘What does it look like? Is it similar or different from what you observed?’ Then the team puts all of that out of the GLOBE observer webpage for data accessibility. People can then download data that includes your observations, the satellite data, and all the processed images as well.’

That comment alone made me wish I’d added the GLOBE Clouds app to my phone before the voyage: who doesn’t want to get an email from NASA containing a satellite image of where they were when they were cloud spotting in Antarctica. 

Data showing how few cloud observations are currently received from the Southern Ocean

Recent research published by Dr Colon Roblés and her colleagues has demonstrated just how accurate the readings collected by citizen scientists are, and how they’re helping to calibrate the satellite data to produce more accurate climate data. 

Clouds and climate models

‘[Citizen scientists] are helping the climate community because they’re realising how important low clouds are in the climate models to really understand the heating that’s happening in our climate. What they’re noticing is that the oceans are absorbing a lot of the heat, but that also leads to a dynamic of seeing fewer clouds in certain areas and more clouds in other areas. That can affect the temperature changes, so it’s a feedback loop.’ 

I was thrilled that our observations were playing even the tiniest part in adding to this data set. The cloud survey had been the easiest citizen science project to take part in, which had the ironic effect of almost making it feel like the most inconsequential. But in truth it was helping to feed into one of the most momentous issues of our time. 

As we finished our call, Dr Colon Roblés issued her call to arms. ‘We just need to get faster data and more data: particularly in areas where there are very few or no scientific instruments.’ So, when you’re out on the Southern Ocean scanning for icebergs, don’t forget to look up. What you see might have a much bigger impact than you could imagine.


Learn more about GLOBE Clouds and download the app on the project website.

If you’d like to learn what citizen science programme you can get involved with on a polar cruise, Swoop Antarctica are the experts to talk to. See our blog series about projects our Antarctic specialists have taken part in or visit our website for more.

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Mike Poppe

Polar specialist

Mike is an Antarctic Team Leader at Swoop. He has sailed on multiple expedition ships in both the Antarctica and Arctic, has experienced a true Drake Shake, taken the Polar Plunge and has paddled through icebergs on a kayak. His next Antarctic adventure takes him to the Weddell Sea in search of the final resting place of Shackleton’s Endurance.