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New analysis find West Antarctic warming more than expected

A new study using a computer model of the atmosphere and a numerical analysis method to fill in gaps in collected data from the Byrd Station outpost finds that the central region of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is experiencing twice as much warming as previously thought.

Due to its location some 700 miles from the South Pole and near the center of the WAIS, conditions at Byrd Station are an important indicator of climate change throughout the region. In the past, researchers haven’t been able to make much use of the Byrd Station measurements because of incomplete temperature observations. Since its establishment in 1957, the station has not been occupied continuously. A year-round automated station was installed in 1980, but it has experienced frequent power outages, especially during the long polar night when its solar panels can’t recharge.

The new study finds that the temperature record from Byrd Station demonstrates a marked increase of 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 degrees Celsius) in average annual temperature since 1958. The rate of increase is three times faster than the average temperature rise around the globe for the same period.

Byrd_footprint_1
Researchers have determined that the central region of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is experiencing twice as much warming as previously thought. Their analysis focuses on the temperature record from Byrd Station (indicated by a star), which provides the only long-term temperature observations in the region. Other permanent research stations with long-term temperature records (indicated by black circles) are scattered around the continent. On this map, the color intensity indicates the extent of warming around Antarctica. (Image by Julien Nicolas, courtesy of Ohio State University.) Click to enlarge.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience. It was conducted by scientists at Ohio State University (OSU), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with funding coming from the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor.

Our results indicate that temperature increases during the past half century have been almost twice what we previously thought, placing West Antarctica among the fastest warming regions on Earth. A growing body of research shows that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is changing at an alarming rate, with pressure coming from both a warming ocean and a warming atmosphere.

—NCAR scientist Andrew Monaghan, a co-author

This study reveals warming trends during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere (December through February), notes co-author David Bromwich, professor of geography at Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center.

Our record suggests that continued summer warming in West Antarctica could upset the surface mass balance of the ice sheet, so that the region could make an even bigger contribution to sea level rise than it already does. Even without generating significant mass loss directly, surface melting on the WAIS could contribute to sea level indirectly by weakening the West Antarctic ice shelves that restrain the region’s natural ice flow into the ocean.

—David Bromwich

Researchers consider the WAIS especially sensitive to climate change because the base of the ice sheet rests below sea level, making it vulnerable to direct contact with warm ocean water. Its melting currently contributes 0.3 millimeters to sea level rise each year. This is second only to Greenland, whose contribution to sea level rise has been estimated as high as 0.7 mm per year.

In addition to offering a more complete picture of warming in West Antarctica, the new study shows for the first time that significant melt is occurring during summer. Monaghan says the summertime warmth is particularly troubling because that is the season in which enhanced surface melting could most affect the WAIS and potentially weaken the ice shelves that buttress it.

We’ve already seen enhanced surface melting contribute to the breakup of the Antarctic’s Larsen B Ice Shelf, where glaciers at the edge discharged massive sections of ice into the ocean that contributed to sea level rise. The stakes would be much higher if a similar event occurred to an ice shelf restraining one of the enormous WAIS glaciers.

—Andrew Monaghan

West Antarctica is one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth, but it is also one of the least known. Our study underscores the need for a reliable network of meteorological observations throughout West Antarctica, so that we can know what is happening—and why—with more certainty.

—David Bromwich

Resources

  • David H. Bromwich, Julien P. Nicolas, Andrew J. Monaghan, Matthew A. Lazzara, Linda M. Keller, George A. Weidner & Aaron B. Wilson (2012) Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth. Nature Geoscience doi: 10.1038/ngeo1671

Comments

Engineer-Poet

The WAIS reporting stations require a reliable source of power.  It's heresy to the Greens, but this is clearly a situation where Pu-238 is required to run RTGs.

It's also time to calculate what it takes to start bringing us back toward 350 ppm, and then doing it.

ai_vin

Actually E-P, as a "green" I do see the use of RTGs as a good idea - as a power source for an unmaned, weather station in a remote un-populated location.

Engineer-Poet

I distinguish between the capital-G Greens whose positions are dogmatically held and substantially Marxist, and people better described as environmentalists.

Bob Wallace

Marxist?

What century are you living in?

I know a lot of greens and Greens. None of them hold dogmatic positions except for the belief that we need to be doing a lot more to protect and restore our planet.

Every G/green I know is open to things that work.

The dogmatic people I encounter are climate change deniers, religious fanatics and "true believers" in less than optimal solutions.

Engineer-Poet
Marxist?

What century are you living in?

The 21st, in which the platforms of Green parties are Marxist in all but name.

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