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A brief history of knowledge about Antarctic temperatures

Filed under: — eric @ 9 December 2010

Sources in italics.

Early 20th Century:

Scott: It’s cold here.
The media: Scott is a hero!
Scott: It’s really really cold here.
The media: Scott is a hero!
Amundsen: It’s not that cold.
The media: Scott is a hero. Oh, and Amundsen.
Public: Shackleton is a hero, but please shut up, there’s a war on.

Mid 20th Century:

Geophizzicists: Let’s find out just how cold it is.
Media: Scott is a hero!
Public: yawn…

Late 20th Century:

Scientists: It’s colder in some place than others.
Media: Antarctica is cooling.
Scientists: It’s cooling at the South Pole, but warming very fast on the Peninsula.
Media: Antarctica is cooling, but warming faster than anywhere else on earth.
Public: Huh…?

Thompson and Solomon: Most of Antarctica is cooling in summer, but it is warming on the Peninsula. We think it has to do with the ozone hole.
Media: Because of ozone, Antarctica is warming faster than anywhere else on earth and we are all going to die.
Public: Huh…?

Early 21st Century:

Scientists: The troposphere over Antarctica is warming significantly in winter.
Media: Even though that paper was published in Science, our readers don’t know what the troposphere is. Neither do we. Next?

Scientists: The troposphere over Antarctica is warming significantly in winter and spring, especially over West Antarctica.
Media: That paper wasn’t published in Nature, so we’re not very interested.

Scientists: Antarctica is cooling in fall — not summer — in some places, but warming, especially in winter and spring, especially in West Antarctica.
Media: Antarctica stops cooling! Conservative or liberal, we are ALL going to die.
Steve McIntyre: The “team” made up the data again. I don’t know what Antarctica is doing, but I think it is probably cooling.
Media: Antarctica starts cooling again, global warming is a fraud.

Ryan O’Donnell: Our paper in the Journal of Climate shows a somewhat better way to look at the same data. Antarctica is warming a bit more in summer, and a bit less in winter in the Ross Sea region. In fall it is cooling a bit more too, and so the overall trends are smaller. Still, West Antarctica is definitely warming significantly, as Steig et al. found. That’s interesting.
Eric Steig: Nice paper Ryan. Thanks for sending along a pre-print.
Steve McIntyre: Hey, we got published in the Journal of Climate! Another paper showing that the “team” made up the data again! (Sotto voce): Ryan says it it is warming a bit more in summer, and a bit less in winter in the Ross Sea region. In fall it is cooling a bit more. Otherwise we get the same results, though the magnitude of the trends is smaller. But West Antarctica is still warming significantly. But I really don’t care. The peer review process is broken, which is why.. umm…our paper was published in the leading climate journal.
Liberal Media: That paper wasn’t published in Nature, so we’re not very interested.
Conservative Media: Antarctica is cooling. Global warming is a fraud.
Public: zzzZZZzzz
P.S. For those actually interested, yes, I’ll have more to say about O’Donnell et al., but overall, I like it.–eric

76 Responses to “A brief history of knowledge about Antarctic temperatures”

  1. 51
    Ryan O says:

    Paul K2:

    Statistically significant warming in our study is restricted to approximately 33% of West Antarctica (not 70%) for the RLS reconstructions, and slightly less for the E-W reconstructions. Statistically significant warming is restricted to approximately 5% of East Antarctica (not 30%) for both reconstruction methods.

    Your guess concerning areas of statistically significant cooling were far closer to the mark. The RLS reconstruction method yields < 1% of East Antarctica with statistically significant cooling, while the E-W method yields about 2% showing statistically significant cooling (not 5%).

    I have re-created an image with the statistically insignificant trends overlaid in gray for the 1957 – 2006 period of the RLS reconstruction here:

    This image also appears in the paper, which Eric can confirm as he has a copy of a preprint.

    [Response: Ryan, thanks, you save me some work. It would be good to have, with the data on-line, the exact pixels you used to define West and East Antarctica, so everyone can make comparisons on the same page. I’m thinking a 5509-size grid with 1=Penin, 2=West, 3=East or something like that.–eric]

  2. 52
    Ryan O says:


    Those are contained in the code (in the section called “VARIABLE ASSIGNMENTS”). As the early on-line release is not yet available (and I don’t know if the supplemental data will be posted with it), I have placed the code and Supporting Information here:

    The filename for the code is “RO10 Code.txt”.

    If you search for this in the code (without the quotes): “### Grid cell masks for geographic locations”, it will take you right to the grid cell assignments for the various regions.

    [Response: thanks.–eric]

  3. 53
    Snapple says:

    It’s the denialists who make people disappear. And it’s no joke.

    For example, Gazprom mogul Alisher Usmanov’s business daily “respectible” Kommersant (a Kremlin/Gazprom mouthpiece)trashed British climate scientists. The English version of this mendacious article is posted on the Heartland Institute site and is cited (but mischaracterized!) in Cuccinelli’s EPA suit.

    Not too long after Gazprominvest’s Usmanov took over the paper, a Kommersant reporter named Ivan Safronov “fell” out of a stairway window one flight above his apartment while carrying a bag of oranges home from the grocery store.

    No doubt he fell on a bananna peel…

  4. 54
    Snapple says:

    Witnesses report that the ambulance wouldn’t come because they “don’t have time to pick all the drunks out of the snow,” they said.

    Probably someone pushed Ivan Safronov out the window or forced him to jump. Dr. Phil Jones was almost driven to suicide by the fake scandal caused by releasing those e-mails.

    Lots of scientists get e-mail death threats. Russian people who try to speak up have to live like this all the time. There is psychological intimidation, kompromat, assault, murder.

    It is a serious development that Western denialists are citing Kommersant and that people who enjoy business relationships with Russian fossil fuel entities are becoming their lobbyists.

  5. 55
    Eli Rabett says:


    Any chance of doing this by season?? (greedy, greedy, greedy)

  6. 56
    DeNihilist says:

    Snapple @ 52/53 – just what does this have to do with the topic of Antartic heating/cooling?

  7. 57
    steven mosher says:


    Would the two groups of authors be willing and able to do a better, more comparable set of maps?
    – Maps drawing isobars (contour lines) would be much easier to understand and compare.
    – A map showing the differences between the two maps could help.
    I realize the maps don’t convey uncertainty.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 11 December 2010 @ 6:27 PM

    the code will be out in due course. One of the benefits of posting code and data is that authors are released from “step and fetch it” requests like yours. Learn R, do the plots yourself. It’s a bit harder than googling

  8. 58
    John says:

    Re #4. I would just like to say that I agree that there is lots of smoke with this fire. Unfortunately, especially for the general public who just watch the TV news, the smoke is extremely subtle combined with the mis-direction from the sceptics who get as much time as the scientists involved. The result is that the evidence is mostly well hidden from the average voter.

  9. 59
    Michael T. says:

    NASA GISS put up a page discussing the cold weather in Europe and the record high November global temperature in the GISS record.

    “2010 – Global Temperature and Europe’s Frigid Air”

  10. 60
    J Bowers says:

    Personally, I’d be interested in seeing a collaboration between Steig and O’Donnell.

    There’s as much chance of my winning the Euromillions lottery, but it’d be nice ;)

    [Response: Au contraire, I think that would be interesting. Stay tuned!–eric]

  11. 61
    J Bowers says:

    Ooh. Fingers crossed. Now, about that lottery win….

  12. 62
    Eric Swanson says:

    Re #55, Eli Rabett

    There is an earlier paper which presents seasonal patterns:

    Johanson, C. M. & Fu, Q. Antarctic atmospheric temperature trend patterns from satellite observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, doi:1029/2006GL029108 (2007).

    Their analysis used the MSU channels 2 & 4 data, not the UAH TLT product, which has a strong influence from the surface. You may recall that I found a slight warming during what I called “the freeze season” using UAH TLT data, which I presented in a paper back in 2003:

    R. E., Evidence of possible sea-ice influence on Microwave Sounding Unit tropospheric temperature trends in polar regions, Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(20), 2040, doi:10.1029/2003GL017938, 2003.

    E. S.

    [Response: Ah yes, Johansen and Fu. Cited in our paper and in my ‘brief history’. Not mentioned in O’Donnell et al., of course. –eric]

  13. 63
    Andy says:

    To summarize:

    Antarctic Peninsula – warmer ocean waters and warmer air temperatures are causing ice shelves to break up because of thinning from below as well as surface meltwater causing or forcing open cracks leading to higher glacial discharge rates and thus significant land ice loss.

    WAIS is thinning from below due to increased ocean temperatures caused by warm deep waters flowing onto continent’s margins caused by increased wind speed largely from ozone depletion. Global warming may soon cause or is beginning to cause warmer waters beneath the ice as well with similar results. The thinning ice sheet causes it to lose its grounding points with the sea bed and so increases flow and losses to the ice sheet.

    Though surface melt within the WAIS could cause wedging and much larger losses, it isn’t necessary for the slow, ongoing but ever accelerating losses from warmer margin waters.

    Ongoing Peninsula and WAIS losses will cause about a half meter or so of sea level rise this century.

    Significant surface melt isn’t anticipated this century, but would require the whole deal to be rethought.

    Did I get that right?

    [Response: Three corrections: 1) I don’t think ozone changes have anything to do with the warm deep water advection, but that’s just my (in review) opinion. 2) Surface melt *is* anticipated in the Pine Island Region, at least if you belief O’Donnell’s climate-alarmist results ;), which show significant summer melting there. 3) I don’t think 1/2 m is likely, from this one source. It’s probably possible.–eric]

  14. 64
    Ryan O says:


    One minor correction to your inline to Andy. In Ellsworth and adjacent Marie Byrd Land, our reconstructions show the least warming in summer, and both the RLS and E-W reconstructions show comparable or less (respectively) warming in summer than your reconstruction.

    [Response: My joke about you being a ‘climate-alarmist’ is just based on the figures in your paper, which show significant warming — by your calculations of significance — in the Amundsen Sea Embayment (where Pine Island Glacier is) in summer, in both sets of reconstructions –eric]

  15. 65
    Ryan O says:


    Got it. No problem. :)

  16. 66
    Dennis says:

    Your paper would have been much better if Steve M and Ryan O had been reviewers or co-authors, IMHO.

    [Response: As would McShane and Wyner’s no doubt…. – gavin]

  17. 67
    Eli Rabett says:

    Eric, yes, I remember your paper, and having looked at Johanson and Fu, IEHO, if they are at all right, annual trends in Antarctica tell you less than nothing.

  18. 68
    sudheer says:

    i wonder whether antarctica would remain the icy continent as it is now after a few years

  19. 69
    Radge Havers says:


    A picture is worth a thousand words. You’d think the media would at least glom on to that; lots of pretty colors.

    Problem: time scale super macro, media attention span sub micro.

  20. 70
    Andy says:

    My source from this was David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey, but I quoted him incorrectly. His presentation this past spring shows that he gave some fairly wide ranges. My best recollection of his unrecorded spoken lecture was a best guess of 0.8m to 1.2m rise from all sources and about 0.3m from Antarctica as a whole by 2100. All of the presentations can be seen here.

    [Response: ] Currently, ice sheets are contributing between 1 and 2 mm/year. If that didn’t change, it would be ~10 cm by 2100. So David is extrapolating that Antarctica will contribute a lot more than it is now. This is definitely possible — I’ve seen estimate that suggest the Pine Island Region — which is going to collapse next week if you believe O’Donnell’s results ;) — could easily contribute 2 mm/year *by itself* if it really gets going. But it is by no means assured. I think the jury is very much out on whether Antarctic changes — except on the Peninsula — are anything but ‘natural variability.’ –eric]

  21. 71
    sidd says:

    Any comment on this ?

    within natural variability or is this a specific signature of CO2 driven warming ?


  22. 72
    sidd says:

    any comment on whether is seen in any model ?

    [Response: Thoma et al. show that an ocean model forcing by observed climate (NCEP reanalysis data) produces the increase in upwelling warm ocean water under the ice sheets. The big increase is between the 1980s and 1990s, and is intimately linked to the winter and spring warming seen in our data, as well as in O’Donnell et al.’s results. Stay tuned for a forthcoming paper on this.–eric]

  23. 73
    steven mosher says:

    Dr. Steig

    What was the novel result in your paper? Just trying to get clear on what you thought that was

    [Response: Significant warming in West Antarctica, like the abstract says. Also, the fact that it warmed most places prior to ~1980, and then cooled somewhat over East Antarctica. Both results are reproduced in O’Donnell et al.–eric]

  24. 74
    steven mosher says:

    Ok, Thanks Dr. Steig.

  25. 75
    sidd says:

    “[Response: Thoma et al. show…”
    Please ? the lonk goes to a paper about Lake Vostok ?

    [Response: Sorry, I meant this one: Thoma et al., 2008, Modelling Circumpolar Deep Water intrusions on the Amundsen Sea continental shelf, Antarctica.–eric]

  26. 76
    sidd says:

    Thanx for the link. I take it that the “submarine trough, accessed via bathymetric irregularities” referred to in the abstract is the same as the one visible in this

    the giant version of the image is at

    [Response: Yes, that’s right.–eric]