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Scientists handle an ice core in Antarctica.
Photo Credit: Dan Dixon/ITASE
Scientists on Paul Mayewski's research team handles a recently drilled ice core from Antarctica. Ice cores are one of the key tools scientists use to study past climate. Much longer cores have shown that CO2 levels today are the highest in the last 800,000 years.

State of the Antarctic

New SCAR report shows continent undergoing major changes

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A week before world leaders sat down for a major climate conference in Copenhagen this month, an international scientific body released the first comprehensive report on the current state of Antarctica’s climate and its relationship to the rest of the globe.

The report from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) External Non-U.S. government site, Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment (ACCE) External Non-U.S. government site Link to PDF file, pulls together the latest research from 100 scientists from eight countries.

The report suggests that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, in particular, will contribute significantly to sea level rise by the end of the century. The scientists predict a total sea level rise of 1.4 meters by 2100, with “tens of centimeters” coming from the glaciers that drain West Antarctica.

More on the SCAR report

Such a rise in global oceans would likely flood coastal regions and low-lying areas, from New York City to Bangladesh.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) External Non-U.S. government site assessment report projected a sea-level rise of between 18 and 59 centimeters by century’s end. However, some criticized that report because it really only accounted for changes in the Arctic, largely ignoring Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that encircles the world’s coldest and driest continent.

Paul Mayewski External Non-U.S. government site, one of the nine editors for the SCAR report and director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine External Non-U.S. government site, said the polar scientific community had discussed such a document for years, but only recently has there been the momentum to pull together the 555-page, wide-ranging report.

“There has been an explosion in Antarctic information and data gathering, really only in the last three or four years, and I think the time has only been right in the last three or four years,” he said. “We’re going to be in plenty of time for the next IPCC.”

Robert Bindschadler External U.S. government site, chief scientist of the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center External U.S. government site and another editor on the SCAR report, said that until recently the Antarctic wasn’t changing as rapidly as the Arctic. That’s no longer the case.

“The fact that changes are happening faster and faster is the primary motivation to get a benchmark in place,” said Bindschadler, only just returned from Antarctica after his most recent fieldwork to test equipment and techniques for an upcoming project to Pine Island Glacier External U.S. government site, where West Antarctica is most quickly hemorrhaging ice into the ocean.

The key message from the report, Bindschadler said, is that “the ice is changing. The ice sheet is changing faster than we ever expected to witness ice sheets changing in our lifetimes, quite honestly.”

Ozone hole drives changes

One finding from recent years that received prominence in the SCAR report concerned the effects of the ozone hole on the Antarctic climate.

Unlike the coastal areas, particularly in West Antarctica, the interior of Antarctica has cooled slightly, according to polar researchers cited in the SCAR report. That’s because the ozone hole over the Southern Hemisphere has cooled the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere above the troposphere that people inhabit.

However, the ocean around the continent and regions to the north are warming. The temperature differential has caused atmospheric circulation to intensify around Antarctica, effectively shielding much of the continent from the intrusion of warmer air to the north.

But as the ozone hole heals, those westerly winds will ease, allowing warmer air to mix more easily into the Antarctic atmosphere. The SCAR report estimates a continent-wide temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100.

“This is what has happened in the northern hemisphere. You have a relatively warm Arctic and a warm low- to mid-latitudes, and the westerlies have slowed down,” Mayewski said. “The big questions for the Antarctic are when will it happen and how fast will it happen.”

Mayewski said based on climate records, particularly from ice cores, that sudden shifts in position and strength of the westerlies have created many of the abrupt climate changes of the past.

Mayewski said: “The implicit but not explicit statement in my mind in this report is the fact that we could very well be headed for not a linear change in the westerlies, but an abrupt change in the westerlies,” he said. “If we experience a very abrupt weakening of the westerlies — we can show that it happened in the past — we could very well have accelerated levels of warming in Antarctica.”

A recent paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters by Marco Tedesco at City College of New York External Non-U.S. government site and Andrew Monaghan at the National Center for Atmospheric Research External Non-U.S. government site in Boulder, Colo., suggested that a 30-year record low in Antarctic snowmelt during the 2008-09 austral summer was likely due to intensified westerlies and El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) External U.S. government site. ENSO is a periodic change in oceanic and atmospheric conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean that has far-reaching effects on weather around the world.

The authors suggest, in step with the SCAR report, that the healing of the ozone hole will eventually ease the westerlies, resulting in more warming in Antarctica. The SCAR report lists Monaghan as one of its 100 authors.1 2   Next