Antarctica, the world’s coldest, windiest and driest continent, has often been described as a stable “sleeping giant,” but increasingly extreme temperatures, along with unusual rainfall and ice shelf shifts, show that this should not be taken for granted, according to the UN This was announced by the weather agency (WMO) on Friday.
In the third week of March, research stations in East Antarctica recorded unprecedented temperatures of up to 40℃ above the monthly average.
The Russian station Vostok in the middle of the Antarctic ice plateau reached a preliminary high of -17.7℃ (0.14°F), breaking the previous record of -32.6℃ (-26.68°F).
Dome Concordia, a Franco-Italian research station on the Antarctic Plateau, 3,233 meters above sea level, experienced its highest temperature in a month.
Just one day earlier, weather stations in the coastal area further upstream had registered rain and even temperatures well above 0°C.
Precipitation is rare in Antarctica, but when it does occur, it has consequences for ecosystems—especially penguin colonies—and for the mass balance of the ice sheets.
“Fortunately, there are no more penguin chicks at this time of year, but the fact that this is happening now in March is a reminder of what’s at stake in the outlying regions: wildlife, ice sheet stability,” said French scientist Etienne Vignon and Christoph Genthon to the WMO.
The experts added that while the warm temperatures in the Dome Concordia (Dome C) excite climatologists, the rains hitting the coast in March are a cause for concern for everyone.
According to the WMO, the heat and humidity were mainly driven by something called atmospheric flux — a narrow band of moisture collected from warm oceans.
Scientists say it’s too early to say definitively if climate change is the cause.
“This event is rewriting record books and our expectations of what is possible in Antarctica. Is this simply an incredibly unlikely event, or is it a sign of more to come? Nobody knows right now,” tweeted Dr. Robert Rohde, Chief Scientist at Berkeley Earth.
The events occurred shortly after Antarctic sea ice reached its minimum extent following the summer meltdown, falling below two million square kilometers for the first time since satellite records began in 1979.
The Antarctic Peninsula (the northwestern tip near South America) is among the fastest warming regions on the planet, nearly 3°C in the last 50 years. Remote East Antarctica, on the other hand, has so far been less affected.
On March 15, 2022, just before the heat wave, the Conger Ice Shelf in East Antarctica — a floating platform the size of Rome or New York City — broke away from the continent. Its collapse was recorded by satellite and made headlines around the world.
The WMO says it’s too early to say what triggered the collapse, but that it’s unlikely to have been caused by surface melting.
But while relatively small and unlikely to have global significance, the collapse of the ice shelf is “another warning sign”.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), both major ice sheets — Greenland and Antarctica — have been losing mass since at least 1990, with the highest loss rate from 2010 to 2019. They are projected to continue losing mass.
As a result of melting ice sheets and glaciers, the rate of global sea level rise has increased since satellite altimeter measurements began in 1993, reaching a new record high in 2021, according to the WMO.
The Antarctic ice sheet is up to 3 miles thick and contains 90% of the world’s fresh water, enough to raise sea levels by about 200 feet.