Global warming: Next stop, the Arctic


Pushing fundamental research toward its applications—that’s the challenge of the European Horizon 2020 APPLICATE project. Its goal is to more accurately predict the effect on Europe of Arctic warming. Researchers at the Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research are unleashing their expertise.


It’s no secret to anyone anymore: the world is getting warmer. Especially its poles, whose warming has repercussions for the rest of the planet—repercussions that researchers are trying to understand and more accurately predict. ‘This immense research programme aims to improve climate predictions in the Arctic and lower latitudes, on time scales from one week to several months’, explains François Massonnet, a researcher at the Georges Lemaître Centre for Earth and Climate Research.

Rapidly applicable results

A unique aspect of the Horizon 2020 APPLICATE project is that it involves not only individuals committed to fundamental research but also individuals who use climate prediction tools every day, such as staff at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. ‘Working with applications specialists gives us a fresh perspective on our work, and the mix should drive fundamental research toward its applications. It’s the project’s primary goal: produce applicable results every day.’

For good reason: what’s happening in the Arctic affects Europe. For instance, the Arctic can be the shortest route for commercial ships as long as the sea ice isn’t too thick. Shipping company route planners have to make sure it’s clear sailing at the desired moment, which requires accurate climate predictions. If they’re inaccurate, the ship might have to turn back, thereby losing considerable time and money. ‘In addition,’ Dr Massonnet says, ‘the Arctic climate can influence climate elsewhere. Severe cold spells paralyse countries and affect their economies and access to health care. Predicting cold spells more accurately can limit collateral damage.’

More precise sea-ice modelling

UCL’s role in the project is based on two types of expertise: sea-ice modelling and data assimilation. ‘We’ve already developed an excellent sea-ice model, which the APPLICATE project will use. But we’ll also improve its accuracy, mainly by taking fuller account of sea ice rheology , that is, the way it reacts to the pressures of wind and currents.’ The effect of snow on sea ice will also be studied.

Better assimilation of observational data

Currently, climate models take account of parameters and variables that aren’t unique to any particular place on the planet. However, more and more data on the Arctic are becoming available from both satellite and expedition observations. ‘These models and data have to be reconciled by integrating the latter into the former so that predictions are based from the start on knowledge that reflects as closely as possible the climate system’s actual state.’

International Year of Polar Prediction

This highly collaborative project, coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, fits perfectly into the International Year of Polar Prediction, which should help researchers obtain even more reliable results. ‘As part of this event, various research expeditions will frequently go to the Arctic and Antarctic Antarctic to take measures—including sea-ice thickness—that are usually performed by satellites’, Dr Massonnet says. ‘It’ll give us a better idea of the reliability and precision of the data we’re using.’


Elise Dubuisson


A glance at François Massonnet's bio

François Massonnet

2009 Master's Degree Engineer - Applied Mathematics(UCL)
2009-2010 Assistant Assistant, Georges Lemaître Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, UCL
2010 – 2014 F.R.S-FNRS Candidate (UCL/ASTR, UCL/TECLIM)
2014 - 2016 Post-doctoral Fellow (IC3/BSC), Barcelone, Espagne
Since 2016  F.R.S-FNRS Research Associate (UCL/TECLIM)

Published on January 17, 2017