Leading climate scientists and oceanographers are urging the Norwegian government to revise or postpone the decommissioning of the world's last stationary weather ship.

Without funding from elsewhere, the M/V Polarfront will be decommissioned. Credit: M. Yelland

Located at 66 ° N in the Norwegian Sea, some 450 kilometres off the coast, the M/V Polarfront maintains Station M (Mike), the last of what was a network of 13 weather stations in the North Atlantic. The International Civil Aviation Organization set them up in 1948 to support air traffic, but by 1974 only four were left, and the penultimate station closed in the 1990s.

Now, as satellites, buoys and reports from moving ships have eclipsed the stationary station for weather-forecasting purposes, the Norwegian government says it cannot justify the expense and intends to decommission the ship by 31 December. Annual operational costs are €2.5 million (US$3.5 million), most of which is paid for by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute in Oslo. The station constitutes more than half of the institute's running expenses for all meteorological observations in the country, including weather radars.

I have received no further offers to share the expenses.

Researchers protest that the shutdown will harm crucial observational programmes in the climate and ocean sciences. "It's a blow," says Ingunn Skjelvan, a chemical oceanographer at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway.

"Equally reliable ocean time series are just not available from satellites, buoys or drifting vessels," says Margaret Yelland, a physical oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK.

In more than 60 years of observations, Station Mike has collected measurements of temperature and salinity down to 2,500 metres five times a week — the world's longest time series of its kind. Among other things, the station has provided key information on the long-term variability of the Nordic seas and on changes in Atlantic Ocean circulation. "These are not oceanographic curiosities," says Tom Rossby, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island in Narragansett. "They are of fundamental importance."

Shutting down the Polarfront "will have dramatic negative consequences for climate change research, as irreplaceable long-term measurements will come to an end", wrote Howard Cattle of the World Climate Research Program in a letter to Norwegian research authorities. "Other weather ships were withdrawn from service by the mid-1990s, before the importance of such sustained observations for understanding climate was fully realized."

Deploying and calibrating hydrographic moorings to replace the Polarfront for climate-quality measuring will require at least a couple of years, experts say.

Norway's research minister, Tora Aasland, has acknowledged the urgent need for new monitoring infrastructure. In a response last month to letters from worried scientists, she said that the Research Council of Norway is prepared to consider scientific proposals for work at Station Mike, and that a decision on funding those could be made this summer.

Even so, the days of the Polarfront seem to be numbered. "I have received an overwhelming number of statements stressing the importance of continuing the operation of the ship, but no further offers to share the expenses," says Anton Eliassen, director of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.