‘Simply mind-boggling’: world record temperature jump in Antarctic raises fears of catastrophe

On 18 March, 2022, scientists at the Concordia research station on the east Antarctic plateau documented a remarkable event. They recorded the largest jump in temperature ever measured at a meteorological centre on Earth. According to their instruments, the region that day experienced a rise of 38.5˚C above its seasonal average: a world record.

Poleward winds, which previously made few inroads into the atmosphere above Antarctica, are now carrying more and more warm, moist air from lower latitudes – including Australia – deep into the continent, say scientists, and these have been blamed for the dramatic polar “heatwave” that hit Concordia. Exactly why these currents are now able to plunge so deep into the continent’s air space is not yet clear, however.

Nor has this huge temperature hike turned out to be an isolated event, scientists have discovered. For the past two years they have been inundated with rising numbers of reports of disturbing meteorological anomalies on the continent. Glaciers bordering the west Antarctic ice-sheet are losing mass to the ocean at an increasing rate, while levels of sea ice, which float on the oceans around the continent, have plunged dramatically, having remained stable for more than a century.

These events have raised fears that the Antarctic, once thought to be too cold to experience the early impacts of global warming, is now succumbing dramatically and rapidly to the swelling levels of greenhouse gases that humans continue to pump into the atmosphere.

These dangers were highlighted by a team of scientists, led by Will Hobbs of the University of Tasmania, in a paper that was published last week in the Journal of Climate. After examining recent changes in sea ice coverage in Antarctica, the group concluded there had been an “abrupt critical transition” in the continent’s climate that could have repercussions for both local Antarctic ecosystems and the global climate system.

Nevertheless, there is now a real danger that some significant sea level rises will occur in the next few decades as the ice sheets and glaciers of west Antarctica continue to shrink. These are being eroded at their bases by warming ocean water and could disintegrate in a few decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that sea levels are likely to rise between 0.3m to 1.1m by the end of the century. Many experts now fear this is a dangerous underestimate. In the past, climate change deniers accused scientists of exaggerating the threat of global warming. However, the evidence that is now emerging from Antarctica and other parts of the world makes it very clear that scientists did not exaggerate. Indeed, they very probably underrated by a considerable degree the threat that now faces humanity.

The woes facing Antarctica are not merely of human concern, however. “We are already seeing serious ecological impacts that threaten to spread through the food chain,” said Prof Kate Hendry, a chemical oceanographer based at the British Antarctic Survey.

A critical example is provided by the algae which grow under and around sea ice in west Antarctica. This is starting to disappear, with very serious implications, added Hendry. Algae is eaten by krill, the tiny marine crustaceans that are one of the most abundant animals on Earth and which provide food for predators that include fish, penguins, seals and whales.

The threat posed by the disappearance of krill goes deeper, however. They play a key role in limiting global warming. Algae absorb carbon dioxide. Krill then eat them and excrete it, the faeces sinking to the seabed and staying there. Decreased levels of algae and krill would then mean less carbon from the atmosphere would be deposited on the ocean floor and would instead remain near the sea surface, where it would return to the atmosphere.

“They act like a conveyor belt that takes carbon out of the atmosphere and carries it down to the deep ocean floor where it can be locked away. So if we start messing with that system, there could be all sorts of other knock-on effects for our attempts to cope with the impact of global warming,” added Hendry. “It is a scary scenario. Nevertheless that, unfortunately, is what we are now facing.”

Another victim of the sudden, catastrophic warming that has gripped the continent is its most famous resident: the emperor penguin. Last year the species, which is found only in Antarctica, suffered a catastrophic breeding failure because the platforms of sea ice on which they are born started to break up long before the young penguins could grow waterproof feathers.

“We have never seen emperor penguins fail to breed, at this scale, in a single season,” said Peter Fretwell, of the British Antarctic Survey. “The loss of sea ice in this region during the Antarctic summer made it very unlikely that displaced chicks would survive.”

Researchers say that the discovery of the loss of emperor penguins suggests that more than 90% of colonies will be wiped out by the end of the century, if global warming trends continue at their current disastrous rate.