A couple of us (Eric and Mike) are co-authors on a paper coming out in Nature this week (Jan. 22, 09). We have already seen misleading interpretations of our results in the popular press and the blogosphere, and so we thought we would nip such speculation in the bud.
The paper shows that Antarctica has been warming for the last 50 years, and that it has been warming especially in West Antarctica (see the figure). The results are based on a statistical blending of satellite data and temperature data from weather stations. The results don’t depend on the statistics alone. They are backed up by independent data from automatic weather stations, as shown in our paper as well as in updated work by Bromwich, Monaghan and others (see their AGU abstract, here), whose earlier work in JGR was taken as contradicting ours. There is also a paper in press in Climate Dynamics (Goosse et al.) that uses a GCM with data assimilation (and without the satellite data we use) and gets the same result. Furthermore, speculation that our results somehow simply reflect changes in the near-surface inversion is ruled out by completely independent results showing that significant warming in West Antarctica extends well into the troposphere. And finally, our results have already been validated by borehole thermometery — a completely independent method — at at least one site in West Antarctica (Barrett et al. report the same rate of warming as we do, but going back to 1930 rather than 1957; see the paper in press in GRL).
Here are some important things the paper does NOT show:
1) Our results do not contradict earlier studies suggesting that some regions of Antarctica have cooled. Why? Because those studies were based on shorter records (20-30 years, not 50 years) and because the cooling is limited to the East Antarctic. Our results show this too, as is readily apparent by comparing our results for the full 50 years (1957-2006) with those for 1969-2000 (the dates used in various previous studies), below.
2) Our results do not necessarily contradict the generally-accepted interpretation of recent East Antarctic cooling put forth by David Thompson (Colorado State) and Susan Solomon (NOAA Aeronomy Lab). In an important paper in Science, they presented evidence that this cooling trend is linked to an increasing trend in the strength of the circumpolar westerlies, and that this can be traced to changes in the stratosphere, mostly due to photochemical ozone losses. Substantial ozone losses did not occur until the late 1970s, and it is only after this period that significant cooling begins in East Antarctica.
3) Our paper — by itself — does not address whether Antarctica’s recent warming is part of a longer term trend. There is separate evidence from ice cores that Antarctica has been warming for most of the 20th century, but this is complicated by the strong influence of El Niño events in West Antarctica. In our own published work to date (Schneider and Steig, PNAS), we find that the 1940s [edit for clarity: the 1935-1945 decade] were the warmest decade of the 20th century in West Antarctica, due to an exceptionally large warming of the tropical Pacific at that time.
So what do our results show? Essentially, that the big picture of Antarctic climate change in the latter part of the 20th century has been largely overlooked. It is well known that it has been warming on the Antarctic Peninsula, probably for the last 100 years (measurements begin at the sub-Antarctic Island of Orcadas in 1901 and show a nearly monotonic warming trend). And yes, East Antarctica cooled over the 1980s and 1990s (though not, in our results, at a statistically significant rate). But West Antarctica, which no one really has paid much attention to (as far as temperature changes are concerned), has been warming rapidly for at least the last 50 years.
Why West Antarctica is warming is just beginning to be explored, but in our paper we argue that it basically has to do enhanced meridional flow — there is more warm air reaching West Antarctica from farther north (that is, from warmer, lower latitudes). In the parlance of statistical climatology, the “zonal wave 3 pattern” has increased (see Raphael, GRL 2004). Something that goes along with this change in atmospheric circulation is reduced sea ice in the region (while sea ice in Antarctica has been increasing on average, there have been significant declines off the West Antarctic coast for the last 25 years, and probably longer). And in fact this is self reinforcing (less sea ice, warmer water, rising air, lower pressure, enhanced storminess).
The obvious question, of course, is whether those changes in circulation are themselves simply “natural variability” or whether they are forced — that is, resulting from changes in greenhouse gases. There will no doubt be a flurry of papers that follow ours, to address that very question. A recent paper in Nature Geosciences by Gillet et al. examined trends in temperatures in the both Antarctic and the Arctic, and concluded that “temperature changes in both … regions can be attributed to human activity.” Unfortunately our results weren’t available in time to be made use of in that paper. But we suspect it will be straightforward to do an update of that work that does incorporate our results, and we look forward to seeing that happen.
Some comment is warranted on whether our results have bearing on the various model projections of future climate change. As we discuss in the paper, fully-coupled ocean-atmosphere models don’t tend to agree with one another very well in the Antarctic. They all show an overall warming trend, but they differ significantly in the spatial structure. As nicely summarized in a paper by Connolley and Bracegirdle in GRL, the models also vary greatly in their sea ice distributions, and this is clearly related to the temperature distributions. These differences aren’t necessarily because there is anything wrong with the model physics (though schemes for handling sea ice do vary quite a bit model to model, and certainly are better in some models than in others), but rather because small differences in the wind fields between models results in quite large differences in the sea ice and air temperature patterns. That means that a sensible projection of future Antarctic temperature change — at anything smaller than the continental scale — can only be based on looking at the mean and variation of ensemble runs, and/or the averages of many models. As it happens, the average of the 19 models in AR4 is similar to our results — showing significant warming in West Antarctica over the last several decades (see Connolley and Bracegirdle’s Figure 1).