Harsh Antarctic weather leaves gaps in climate data

Port Lockroy research station in Antarctica. (Credit: McKay Savage/Flickr)

A shortage of data on the weather in Antarctica is hampering efforts to understand climate change in the region, report researchers.

“The Antarctic climate is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces still missing.”

Scientists can confidently say that the Earth is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans, but data on climate trends over the Antarctic and the surrounding Southern Ocean only go back to 1979 when regular satellite observations began. This makes it difficult for researchers to see how longer-term climate trends have changed in the region.

The inhospitable nature of the continent means that it has never had permanent inhabitants to take regular weather observations, unlike most other places on the planet.

The first routine observations only started in 1957 with the establishment of the network of Antarctic Research Stations. They provide important weather data, but are mostly located around the coast, and so leave vast areas of the continent and the surrounding oceans uncovered.

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“The Antarctic climate is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces still missing,” says study leader Julie Jones of the University of Sheffield’s geography department.

“There are some parts of the picture which are clear, particularly the way that climate change is causing westerly winds to shift southwards, but there are still huge gaps that we need to fill in order to fully understand how much human activity is changing weather in the region.

“At face-value, many of the climate trends in Antarctica seem counter-intuitive for the warming world. Scientists have good theories for why, but these are difficult to prove with the short records we are working with.”

To gain a longer view of recent changes, Jones and colleagues used a compilation of climate records from natural archives, such as ice cores from the Antarctic ice sheet, which give indications of how the region’s climate has changed over the last 200 years. They also studied how these recent changes compared to those in experiments with climate models.

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They confirmed that human-induced changes have caused the belt of prevailing westerly winds over the Southern Ocean to shift towards Antarctica.

The research concludes that for other changes, such as regional warming and sea ice changes, the observations over the satellite-era since 1979 are not yet long enough for the signal of human-induced climate change to be clearly separated from the strong natural variability in the region

Understanding Antarctic climate change is important not only because of the potential sea level rise locked up in the vast Antarctic ice sheet, but also the shift in the westerly winds has moved rainfall away from southern Australia. In combination with increasing temperatures (this year is set to be the country’s hottest year on record) this has had profound impacts on Australian communities and ecosystems.

Coauthor Nerilie Abram of the Australian National University, says: “In order to better understand climate change in Antarctica, we need continued climate measurements in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, and extension of these short observational records with past climate reconstructions and climate modeling.”

The research appears in Nature Climate Change.

Source: University of Sheffield