Antarctica, it seems, has been simmering for some time now — much longer than we may have realized. It’s been a crazy year, and 2020 has been a little warmer than usual down in the south — way down in the south. As in, the bottom of the world, where it’s normally inhospitably cold.
Antarctica has made headlines several times this year due to extremely warmer than usual temperatures. In fact, Antarctica is melting as an ice cube dropped into hot, fresh southern sweet tea. Data from NASA showed a visual of its rapidly melting ice earlier this year, even showing an almost-ice-free part of Antarctica. In fact, some parts of Antarctica were warmer than Louisiana, which is known for its intense heat and humidity (I can testify to this).
While it has been making headlines, I have a feeling they won’t be going away. We are moving into the direction of an ice-free Antarctica. I have to admit I am personally divided on this. Obviously, there’s the part that is freaked out because that water will speed up climate change, flooding, and the like. It will be disastrous. There is another part, however, that is curious to see what lies under the ice. I’ve watched a few documentaries here or there about wild things that may be underneath. So, that side is excited to see the mysteries beneath the ice. However, that is just a small part, as mysteries are beautiful creatures unto themselves. Once solved, there is no more awe or curiosity.
My personal thoughts aside, we are headed in that direction — an ice-free Antarctica.
Antarctica’s Decades of Warming
Back in June, The New York Times published an article that analyzed a study that examined Antarctica’s warming over the past 30 years. The data came from an American research base snuggled inside the vacuum of Antarctica’s icy heartland. Antarctica has been warming up by around 0.6 degrees Celsius each decade for the past 30 years. This is 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit.
The researchers analyzed weather data, used climate models, and discovered that these rising temps are a result of changes in atmospheric circulation that have their beginnings many thousands of miles away. The atmospheric shenanigans in the western tropical Pacific Ocean have been affecting those of the Antarctic in a way that, unfortunately, has gotten increasingly concerning for the planet. Kyle Clem, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand, shared his thoughts: “The South Pole is warming at an incredible rate, and it is chiefly driven by the tropics.”
The analysis shows that even though emissions from greenhouse gases do have a key role in climate change, natural climate variability could possibly account for all of the extreme temperature swings in Antarctica. This would mask any of those caused by human activity. But that doesn’t mean human activity isn’t having a large impact, as it is everywhere else in the world.
“The Antarctic interior may be one of the few places remaining on Earth where the anthropogenic signal cannot be easily teased out due to such extreme variability,” Dr. Clem noted.“But you’re very, very unlikely to get a warming trend that strong without increasing greenhouse gases.”
The New York Times also interviewed two researchers at the University of Colorado who wrote a commentary on the study published in the same journal. Sharon Stammerjon and Ted Scambos. Both agreed that even though the rest of the world has been warming steadily over the past 50 years, Antarctica has seen major temperature swings and might always have.
Dr. Stammerjon told the NYTimes that, “warming at the South Pole is significant because it’s the most remote place on the planet. But it’s still never going to get above freezing. We don’t have to worry too much about losing ice at the pole just yet. But definitely the coastlines are another matter.”
She also explained that there was more evidence that how our planet is responding to warming is changing the atmosphere and ocean circulation on a large scale.
“And that’s what’s contributing to the warmer waters at depth. There’s going to be a lot of variability superimposed on that, but the direction, and the projection, would be toward more and more warm water and more ice sheet loss. It’s so easy to think that Antarctica is isolated and remote and is not going to respond to climate change. It’s the one that’s going to change our sea-level dramatically.” She added that warming at the South Pole is “the ultimate canary in the coal mine, one that we can no longer ignore.”
We — by “we,” I mean our politicians — need to listen to our scientists and stop disregarding them just because we don’t like the message they are delivering. We — by “we,” I mean humans — need to do better by our planet.