Polar Notes

Sep 2023

Is Antarctica Finally Starting to Feel the Heat?

Is Antarctica finally starting to feel the heat?

Whilst July might have felt like a washout for the UK, extreme heat around the world has stolen the headlines this summer. The planet experienced the hottest June in its 174-year global climate record history, and July has seen record-breaking extreme heatwaves across Southern Europe, the USA and China. But it’s not just the Northern Hemisphere experiencing unseasonable warmth. Antarctica is also feeling the heat.

Currently in its winter, Antarctica should be in the depths of its sea-ice growing season, which runs from February to September. However, scientists are observing unseasonably low levels of sea ice in this region for the time of year: far below previous records (Figure 1).

Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) show that, as of mid-July, Antarctic ice extent is more than 2.6 million square kilometers (1.00 million square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average, an area nearly as large as the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. (Figure 2).

The world as a whole has already warmed by about 1.1oC since the industrial era began and polar regions are warming at three times the rate of the global average. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet, with average summer temperatures increasing by over 3°C between 1970 and 2020, and upper ocean temperatures to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula increased over 1°C since 1955. But despite this, between 1978 (when satellite observations began) and 2014, sea ice around Antarctica was gradually increasing. This was largely attributed to long-term, large-scale wind circulation patterns that drove sea ice away from Antarctica, making room for more sea ice to form nearer to the continent.

However, 2016 saw the start of a seismic shift towards significant sea ice decline surrounding Antarctica. By 2017, it was at a record low and within only three years, 35 years of gradual gains had been lost (Figure 3). 2022 subsequently beat 2017’s record, and so far, 2023 looks set to break that. Now, there are concerns that the current conditions in Antarctica are evidence that a tipping point has been reached, and scientists are trying to grapple with what these extreme changes mean for the delicate Antarctic ecosystems and the wider planet.

Antarctica plays a critical role in regulating the global climate: helping to slow global heating, drive important ocean currents, and contribute to the drawdown of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Since the 1970s the Southern Ocean has absorbed as much as 75 percent of the excess heat created by humans, and 40 percent of the carbon dioxide. Changes in conditions that could jeopardise the Antarctic’s role in buffering climate change has wider implications for the planet and its climate resilience.

The extraordinary behaviour of Antarctica’s sea ice in 2023 serves as a reminder that time for meaningful climate action is running out. We are now entering a period of urgency if we are to meet our target to limit global warming to 1.5oC. This is something that leading scientists fear will not be possible without even greater efforts from governments around the world to tackle outputs of atmospheric carbon. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase year on year, with energy-related CO2 emissions up almost 1% last year, according to the International Energy Agency, a global energy watchdog.

Britain has the potential to demonstrate an unparalleled level of leadership and environmental responsibility in tackling climate change, both at home and on the world stage. In order to do so, it must go further to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions, acting upon its Net Zero strategy, which aims to decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy by 2050, relentlessly, and as a matter of urgency.

Furthermore, in order to fulfil its commitment in the Integrated Review Refresh 2023 to maintain the ambition set by IR2021, COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep the 1.5-degree target alive, the UK’s must draw upon its extensive history of statecraft, leveraging and international relations to lead and galvanise a collective global movement that prioritises combatting climate change, which is a threat to us all.

Amy Gray (Research Specialist, APPG for the Polar Regions)

Article by: Amy Gray (MSc, MA, BA)

Research Specialist, APPG for Polar Regions

Twitter/X: Amy_Gray_1