Climate change in Antarctica

Summary

Climate change in Antarctica is resulting in rising temperatures and increasing snowmelt and ice loss.[1] A summary study in 2018 incorporating calculations and data from many other studies estimated that total ice loss in Antarctica due to climate change was 43 gigatons per year on average during the period from 1992 to 2002 but has accelerated to an average of 220 gigatons per year during the five years from 2012 to 2017.[2] Total mass loss over the period 1992–2018 was likely 2720 gigatons for the grounded part of the Antarctic ice sheet.[3]

Antarctic Skin Temperature Trends between 1981 and 2007, based on thermal infrared observations made by a series of NOAA satellite sensors. Skin temperature trends do not necessarily reflect air temperature trends.

Particularly strong warming has been noted on the Antarctic Peninsula. A study in 2009 noted for the first time that the continent-wide average surface temperature trend of Antarctica was slightly positive from 1957 to 2006.[4] Over the second half of the 20th century, the Antarctic Peninsula was the fastest-warming place on Earth, closely followed by West Antarctica, but these trends weakened in the early 21st-century.[5] Conversely, the South Pole in East Antarctica barely warmed last century, but in the last three decades the temperature increase there has been more than three times greater than the global average.[6] In February 2020, the continent recorded its highest temperature of 18.3 °C (64.9 °F), which was a degree higher than the previous record of 17.5 °C (63.5 °F) in March 2015.[7]

There is some evidence that surface warming in Antarctica is due to human greenhouse gas emissions,[8] but this is difficult to determine due to internal variability.[9] Models predict that antarctic temperatures will be up 4 °C, on average, by 2100 and this will be accompanied by a 30% increase in precipitation and a 30% decrease in total sea ice.[10] A main component of climate variability in Antarctica is the Southern Annular Mode, which showed strengthened winds around Antarctica in summer of the later decades of the 20th century, associated with cooler temperatures over the continent. The trend was at a scale unprecedented over the last 600 years; the most dominant driver of this mode of variability is likely the depletion of ozone above the continent.[11]

In 2002, the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen-B ice shelf collapsed.[12] Between 28 February and 8 March 2008, about 570 km2 (220 sq mi) of ice from the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the southwest part of the peninsula collapsed, putting the remaining 15,000 km2 (5,800 sq mi) of the ice shelf at risk. The ice was being held back by a "thread" of ice about 6 km (4 mi) wide,[13][14] prior to its collapse on 5 April 2009.[15][16]

Impacts on the natural environmentEdit

The continent-wide average surface temperature trend of Antarctica is positive and significant at >0.05 °C/decade since 1957.[17][18] The West Antarctic ice sheet has warmed by more than 0.1 °C/decade in the last 50 years, with most of the warming occurring in winter and spring. This is somewhat offset by cooling in East Antarctica during the fall. This effect is restricted to the 1980s and 1990s.[19][20][17]

Research published in 2009 found that overall the continent had become warmer since the 1950s, a finding consistent with the influence of man-made climate change:

"We can't pin it down, but it certainly is consistent with the influence of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels", said NASA scientist Drew Shindell, another study co-author. Some of the effects also could be natural variability, he said.[21]

2000sEdit

 
September 20, 2007 NASA map showing previously un-melted snowmelt

The British Antarctic Survey, which has undertaken the majority of Britain's scientific research in the area, had the following positions in 2006:[22]

  • Ice, especially sea ice, increases the sensitivity of polar regions to warming , by introducing a strong positive feedbacks loop.
  • Melting of continental Antarctic ice could contribute to global sea-level rise.
  • Climate models predict more snowfall than ice melting during the next 50 years, but the models are not good enough for them to be confident about the prediction.
  • Antarctica seems to be both warming around the edges and cooling at the center at the same time. Thus it is not possible to say whether it is warming or cooling overall.
  • There is no evidence for a decline in the overall Antarctic sea ice extent.[23]
  • The central and southern parts of the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula have warmed by about 2.4 °C. The cause is not known.
  • Changes have occurred in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica.

The area of strongest cooling appears at the South Pole, and the region of strongest warming lies along the Antarctic Peninsula. A possible explanation is that loss of UV-absorbing ozone may have cooled the stratosphere and strengthened the polar vortex, a pattern of spinning winds around the South Pole. The vortex acts like an atmospheric barrier, preventing warmer, coastal air from moving into the continent's interior. A stronger polar vortex might explain the cooling trend in the interior of Antarctica. [1]

 
Ice mass loss since 2002, as measured by NASA's GRACE and GRACE Follow-On satellite projects, was 152 billion metric tons per year.[24]

In their latest study (September 20, 2007) NASA researchers have confirmed that Antarctic snow is melting farther inland from the coast over time, melting at higher altitudes than ever and increasingly melting on Antarctica's largest ice shelf.[25]

There is also evidence for widespread glacier retreat around the Antarctic Peninsula.[26]

 
The collapse of Larsen B, showing the diminishing extent of the shelf from 1998 to 2002

The Antarctic peninsula has lost a number of ice shelves recently. These are large areas of floating ice which are fed by glaciers. Many are the size of a small country. The sudden collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002[27] took 5 weeks or less and may have been due to global warming.[28] Larsen B had previously been stable for up to 12,000 years.[29]

Concern has been expressed about the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet. A collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet could occur "within 300 years [as] a worst-case scenario. Rapid sea-level rise (>1 m per century) is more likely to come from the WAIS than from the [Greenland ice sheet]."[30]

2010sEdit

Researchers reported on December 21, 2012 in Nature Geoscience that from 1958 to 2010, the average temperature at the 1,500-metre-high (5,000 ft) Byrd Station rose by 2.4 degrees Celsius, with warming fastest in its winter and spring. The spot which is in the heart of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth.[31][32][33]

A study of the Antarctic Peninsula, a small subregion of Lesser Antarctica, published in 2017 found that the temperature trends at the northern tip of the Peninsula, the north-east region of the Peninsula, and the South Shetland Islands "shifted from a warming trend of 0.32 °C/decade during 1979–1997 to a cooling trend of −0.47 °C/decade during 1999–2014" but that this variation was absent from the south-west region of the Peninsula.[34]

In 2015, the temperature showed changes but in a stable manner and the only months that have drastic change in that year are August and September. It also did show that the temperature was very stable throughout the year.[35][36][37][38]

A 2018 systematic review of all previous studies and data by the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) found that Antarctica lost 2720 ± 1390 gigatons of ice during the period from 1992 to 2017, enough to contribute 7.6 millimeters to sea level rise once all detached icebergs melt. Most ice losses occurred in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. The overall loss has substantially accelerated since the 2012 IMBIE assessment: an average loss of 43 gigatons per year during the first ten years, 1992 to 2002, rose to an average of 220 gigatons per year in the last 5 years. East Antarctica appears to have experienced a net gain of a relatively small amount of ice during the 25-years although uncertainty is greater due to subsidence of the underlying bedrock.[2]

Through his ongoing study, climate scientist, Nick Golledge, has estimated that Antarctic ice sheets will continue to melt and will have a profound effect on global climate.[39] According to Golledge's analysis, by the year 2100, 25 centimeters of water will have been added to the world's ocean, as water temperature continues to rise.[40]

2020sEdit

 
Scientists confirm the first active leak of sea-bed methane in Antarctica and report that "the rate of microbial succession may have an unrealized impact on greenhouse gas emission from marine methane reservoirs".[41][42]

From 1989 to 2018, the South Pole experienced a record high statistically significant warming of 0.61 ± 0.34 °C per decade, more than three times the global average.[43] However, this warming lies within the upper bounds of the simulated range of natural variability, leading researchers to conclude that extreme decadal variability has masked anthropogenic warming across interior Antarctica during the twenty-first century.[43]

On 1 July 2021, the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization confirmed that a record high temperature of 18.3 °C (64.9 °F) had been recorded in Antarctica at the Esperanza Base.[44] A study using past global and climate models published in 2021, found that warming events across Antarctica are expected to become more frequent and longer. Moderate-emission projections from this study included warming events doubling in West Antarctica and tripling in the interior of East Antarctica.[45]

The Thwaites Glacier is the widest glacier at about 120 km wide and it is a fast-melting formation that has been the focus of various climate change studies.[46] In 2021, it was reported that giant fractures have been forming along the Thwaites Glacier which could result in the collapse of part of the shelf in five years. This glacier already loses about 50 billion tonnes of ice per year which contributes to 4% of all global sea-level rise.[47]

The Antarctic ice sheet accounts for 90% of the world’s ice volume and 70% of all freshwater on Earth. Global warming has resulted in rapid mass loss of the Antarctica ice sheet.[48] A study published in 2022, revealed that glacier melting from the Antarctica ice sheet accounted for most of the total freshening occurring in the Southern Ocean.[49] The freshening of the Southern Ocean results in increased stratification and stabilization of the ocean. This would weaken overturning circulation and prevent saltier deep water from rising to the surface waters.[50]

Future impacts of climate changeEdit

 
Antarctic Ice Shelf loss visualized

Even if global temperature rise is limited to the Paris Agreement's stated temperature goals of capping global mean temperature increases to 1.5–2 °C above pre-industrial levels, there is still concern that West Antarctic ice-sheet instability may be already irreversible.[51] If a similar trajectory, still under the global temperature limit goals, persists, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may also be at risk of permanent destabilization.[52] It has been shown using physics-based computer modeling that even with a 2 °C reduction in global mean temperatures Antarctic ice loss could continue at the same rate as it did in the first two decades of the 21st century.[53]

The continued effects of climate change is likely to be felt by animal populations as well. Adélie penguins, a species of penguin found only along the coast of Antarctica, may see nearly one-third of their current population threatened by 2060 with unmitigated climate change.[54] Emperor penguin populations may be at a similar risk, with 80% of populations being at risk of extinction by 2100 with no mitigation. With Paris Agreement temperature goals in place, however, that number may decline to 19% under the 2 °C goal or 31% under the 1.5 °C goal.[55] Warming ocean temperatures have also reduced the amount of krill and copepods in the ocean surrounding Antarctica, which has led to the inability of baleen whales to recover from pre-whaling levels. Without a reversal in temperature increases, baleen whales are likely to be forced to adapt their migratory patterns or face local extinction.[56]

Finally, the development of Antarctica for the purposes of industry, tourism, or an increase in research facilities may put direct pressure on the continent and threaten its status as largely untouched land.[57]

Impacts on biodiversityEdit

In 2010 according to the Register of Antarctic Marine Species, there were known to be 8,806 species that had been discovered up to that point and there could be as many as 17,000 species that live in the Antarctic which means that there are still thousands of species that have yet to be discovered and are apart of what makes this biodiverse environment.[58] Many modern molecular techniques have found some species including bivalves, isopods, and pycnogonida in the Antarctic ecosystem.[59] The issue with studies of some of these species is that 90% of the Antarctic region is greater than 1,000 meters deep, and only 30% of the benthic sample locations were found below this depth which indicates that there is a major bias toward testing shallower areas.[59] Cruises such as ANDEEP (Antarctic, benthic deep-sea biodiversity project) has sampled around 11% of the deep sea and they found 585 species of isopod crustaceans that were previously un-described which shows that further research of this deep sea area could really intensify the known biodiversity of the Antarctic.[59]

Another major source of biodiversity within ice communities throughout Antarctica are algal communities found located in brine channels. During the summer, the sea ice undergoes a lot of transformation when the ice begins to melt and sub-ice communities are formed. These sub-ice communities are often found in what are known as brine channels that occur when the ice slowly starts to melt and creates channels within the ice that allow for organisms such as carbon-binding algae.[60] This is important because algae is at the base of the food-chain and with these algae, photosynthesis can occur which allows for a sustainable ecosystem and overall a more abundant food-chain.

Due to a lack of human population some scientists had assumptions that Antarctic biodiversity might be unaffected by the climate change.[61] The average global temperature has risen by 1 degree celsius since 1880 and many studies have shown that there are adverse effects occurring in biodiverse ecosystems within Antarctica.[62] The big question is how will biodiversity react to the climate shifting even a degree more? An experiment was done to quantify the changes that may occur to the Antarctic ecosystem due to climate change and scientists predicted that if the planet were to go beyond the global mean temperature, for example 3 degrees Celsius more, the local species richness would decline by nearly 17% and the suitable climate area by 50%.[62]

Heatwave events in Antarctica are expected to increase in frequency and intensity which can result in the loss of individual species.[63] The absence of predators in these ecosystems could trigger a trophic cascade that would lead to the extinction of secondary species. However, the presence of predators can help buffer the impacts of such warming events.[64]

PermafrostEdit

Increasing temperatures in Antarctica also leads to melting of permafrost which can many chemicals.[65] Similar to how soils have a variety of chemical contaminants and nutrients in them, the permafrost in Antarctica traps similar compounds until they melt and the contaminants are released again. These released chemicals change the water chemistry of surface waters, small organisms like micro-algae consume the contaminants, and then bioaccumulation and biomagnification occur throughout the food web.[65] Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals can be found in the permafrost and the remobilization of these chemicals will likely have negative consequences on organisms which will then affect the whole ecosystem. Some of the concerning chemicals and observed biological effects are PAH’s (carcinogenic, liver damage),[66] PCB’s/HCB/DDT (decreased reproductive success, immunohematological disorders),[67] and Hg/Pb/Cd (endocrine disruption, DNA damage, immunotoxicity, reprotoxicity).[68] Understanding what chemicals are trapped in the permafrost and their potential negative effects on Antarctic ecosystems is important because we know that many chemicals will be mobilized from the permafrost as we see increasing temperatures due to climate change.

Non-native speciesEdit

Tourism in Antarctica has been significantly increasing for the past 2 decades with 74,401 tourists in the summer of 2019/2020.[69] The increased human activity associated with tourism likely means there is increased opportunity for the introduction of non-native species. The potential for introduction of non-native species in an environment with rising temperatures and decreasing ice cover is especially concerning because there is an increased probability that introduced species will thrive. Climate change will likely reduce the survivability for native species, improving the chance that introduced species will thrive due to decreased competition.[70] Policy limiting the number of tourists and the permitted activities on and around the continent which mitigate the introduction of new species and limit the disturbance to native species will help prevent the introduction and dominance by non-native species.[70] The continued designation of protected areas like Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASMA) and Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMA) would be one way to accomplish this.

PolicyEdit

Climate change is a global issue. Thus, the rising temperatures and associated ice and permafrost melting seen in Antarctica will only be mitigated through global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, policy efforts have focused on mitigating the effects of climate change rather than mitigating climate change itself.[10] One realistic way that policy can be used to address climate change effects in Antarctica is by aiming to increase climate change resilience through the protection of ecosystems. Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA) and Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMA) are areas of Antarctica that are designated by the Antarctic Treaty for special protection of the flora and fauna.[71] Both ASPAs and ASMAs restrict entry but to different extents, with ASPAs being the highest level of protection. Designation of ASPAs has decreased 84% since the 1980’s despite a rapid increase in tourism which may pose additional stress on the natural environment and ecosystems.[10] In order to alleviate the stress on Antarctic ecosystems posed by climate change and furthered by the rapid increase in tourism, much of the scientific community advocates for an increase in protected areas like ASPAs to improve Antarctica’s resilience to rising temperatures.[10]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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External linksEdit

  • White Ocean of Ice Antarctica and climate change blog
  • Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate. How much will sea levels rise? on YouTube published on April 10, 2019 PBS NewsHour