New weather station transmits data from Mount McKinley

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- It was a balmy -2 degrees 1,120 feet below the summit of Mount McKinley Sunday evening, with a southwesterly wind blowing at 18 miles per hour.

While those conditions are typical on the mountain at this time of year, that information is now available, for the first time, in real time. A new weather station installed on the mountain makes it possible to access the weather data on the Web.

The station is a joint project of the United States and Japan. Members of the Japanese Alpine Club, along with a climber from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, installed the station at the 19,200-foot leve of McKinley on June 18.

The station, one of only a half dozen worldwide at such high altitudes, transmits data via satellite to the International Arctic Research Center at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The new station can provide weather data for climate researchers as well as climbers trying to reach McKinley's summit, said Kevin Abnett, electronics shop supervisor at the Geophysical Institute. Abnett and technician Richard Ruhkick designed the station.

Weather stations near the summit of McKinley aren't new. In 1990, a station was placed to gather much of the same information that the new one will. But the old stations simply gathered and stored the data.

''Each year they would go and retrieve the instrument and take that computer chip back for analysis,'' Abnett said. ''There was several problems with that instrument, one that you have to wait a year to find out what was going on.''

The old station also had some physical limitations. The wind sensors on the old station were fragile, and tended to break when they became covered with ice, he said.

''Most of the wind sensors didn't even make it for the whole year.'' The new weather station includes an ultrasonic wind sensor that uses sound waves to detect wind speed and direction. One of the biggest hurdles when designing the station was the power source, Abnett said.

''The challenge here was we needed to make this very small and lightweight so that mountain climbers could carry it up there.''

Most remote data gathering stations use solar panels, he said, but that wasn't practical because the icing conditions on McKinley would render them useless.

''It essentially runs for a year on about eight flashlight batteries.'' He said the old station was left on the mountain at the same place as the new one. At the end of the year, data from both machines will be compared.

The new McKinley station completes a network of real-time high-altitude stations in the western hemisphere. Data from it, along with data from stations in Hawaii and the Andes Mountains, will give scientists a better picture of global high-elevation weather, according to Syun-Ichi Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center.

''Connecting those three will (produce) global data at a very high altitude at almost a continuous basis,'' Akasofu said. ''No one had the data of this kind (before) so now we are going to explore.''


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