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Climate Watch: Record Rise In Antarctic Temperatures, But Just How Concerning Is It?

As the world grapples with a European war and yet another wave of Coronavirus, a much more concerning news seems to have gone unnoticed by many- the fact that polar temperatures have hit record highs for this time of the year, so much so that photographs from the Concordia research station in Antarctica showed scientists dressed for beach weather.

The temperature in the Antarctic was up by over 40 degree Celsius than the usual temperature in March and this has the scientific community gravely concerned.

Journalist and Antarctic climatologist Stefano Di Battista,  said in his tweet, “It is impossible, we would have said until two days ago. From today (March 18) the Antarctic climatology has been rewritten.  At Concordia the high recorded -12.2 °C and broken the absolute maximum set on 17 December 2016 (-13.7 °C). At Vostok the provisional high is -20.3 °C”

The Concordia is a research station run by France and Italy in Eastern Antarctica, while the Vostok, 350 miles away and in the centre of the eastern ice sheet, is a Russian research station, one of the most isolated research stations in the world, and is famous for having recorded the lowest surface temperature on earth: – 89.2Celsius. 

The Washington Post reported that the average high temperature in Vostok is around minus-53 Celsius in March. But on March 18, the temperature went up to minus-17.7 Celsius. This is the warmest it’s been during March since the record keeping began. 

Meanwhile at Concordia, the average temperature around this time of the year is minus-48.7Celsius. But this year, it shot up to minus-12.2Celsius. 

The scientific community attribute this massive rise in temperature to a heatwave triggered by a phenomenon called  ‘atmospheric river’. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains the phenomenon as a ‘relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapour outside of the tropics. These columns of vapour move with the weather, carrying an amount of water vapour roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapour in the form of rain or snow.’

“This weather event is an example of atmospheric warming above the ice shelves,” The Guardian quoted Prof Andrew Mackintosh, head of the school of earth, atmosphere and environment at Monash University. In Antarctica, “the heat would have to persist for a fairly long period of time to make a substantial difference”, he added.

Significant Snow, Rain and Ice melt 

But reports point out how satellite imagery and computer models indicate significant snow in the, including heavy precipitation and even ice melt in the coast. “During the heatwave, the ice sheet experienced its fourth-wettest day in more than four decades, according to the Regional Atmosphere Model (MAR), a regional climate model that studies the melting of the polar ice caps,” The Washington Post reported.

“Usually, the climate of Antarctica is too cold to have significant accumulation of snow and most of liquid water from melt or rainfall is absorbed by the snowpack and refreezes. Yet, snowfall led to the ice sheet gaining 69 gigatons of mass from March 16 to 18, three times the usual rate,”  the report quoted Xavier Fettweis, a climate scientist from the University of Liège,Belgium, who coordinates the development of MAR, as saying. 

But how likely is such an event?

Explaining what the heatwave means and how common it is, Dr Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, says that ‘this heatwave might be as common as roughly a once-in-200-year event’.

Analysing the data on how much colder or warmer the temperature has been than normal, Dr Rhode says “The distribution is asymmetric on the high side, an effect which gets really extreme if you now include 2022.” He further goes on to explain how this is a once in a 200 year event. 

“A once-in-200-year event would still be quite rare and unexpected, but not impossibly so. So maybe this is a chance? Or perhaps climate change already made it a bit more likely? Or perhaps other factors are at play? We don’t really know yet,” concludes Dr Rhode, adding “The bottom line, for me, is that this was an extraordinary event that we are only beginning to understand. It’s very extreme, and changes our awareness of what is possible in Antarctica, but maybe not quite as extreme as it initially appeared.” 


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Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon is a fact-checker based out of Delhi who enjoys ‘digital sleuthing’ and calling out misinformation. He has completed his MA in International Relations from Madras University and has worked with organisations like NDTV, Times Now and Deccan Chronicle online in the past.
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon is a fact-checker based out of Delhi who enjoys ‘digital sleuthing’ and calling out misinformation. He has completed his MA in International Relations from Madras University and has worked with organisations like NDTV, Times Now and Deccan Chronicle online in the past.

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