West Antarctica: still warming

Third, O’Donnell et al. argue that we used too low a truncation parameter when doing the ‘truncated least squares’ regressions. In general, using too low a truncation parameter will overly smooth the results, and tend to smooth both temporal and spatial information. The problem with using too large a truncation parameter is that it creates problems when data are sparse, resulting in numerical noise (overfitting). O’Donnell et al. try to get around this problem by using cross validation — that is, trying a bunch of different truncation parameters, and using the ones that give the maximum r2, RE and CE statistics.

There are a number of other criticisms that O’Donnell et al. make, such as whether it is okay to infill the weather station data at the same time as doing the calibration against the satellite data (as we did) or whether these have to be done separately (as O’Donnell et al. did). These are more technical points that may or may not be generally applicable, but in any case do not make a significant difference to the results at hand (as O’Donnell et al. point out).

Let’s assume, for the moment, that all of these ideas are on the mark, and that the main reconstruction presented by O’Donnell et al. is, in fact, a more accurate picture of Antarctic temperature change in the last 50 years than presented in previous work. What are the implications for Antarctic climate? How would they differ what was concluded in Steig et al. (2009)? The answer is: very little.

The spatial patterns of annual trends, and how they evolve through time, is similar in both papers. In particular, O’Donnell et al. find, as we did, that the entire continent was warming, on average, prior to early 1980s (Figure below from their main “RLS” reconstruction). As we said in our paper, this would tend to support the idea that cooling in East Antarctica is a recent phenomenon at least in part attributable to recent trends in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), which is itself forced (at least in part) by stratospheric ozone depletion.

O’Donnell et al. also reproduce our finding that the seasons in which the most rapid and significant warming is occurring are winter and spring — in large areas of both East Antarctica and West Antarctica. In spring, warming is significant throughout all of West Antarctica through the entire 50 years of the record, and in winter, it also occurs throughout all of West Antarctica in the last 25 years. In both seasons in this latter period, the locus of greatest warming has been West Antarctica, and particularly the Ross Sea region and Marie Byrd land, not just the Antarctic Peninsula as virtually all studies prior to ours had assumed. This is an important result that we highlighted in our paper because it has implications for our understanding of the dynamics involving Antarctic warming. Specifically, we made a model-data comparison in the paper, in which we said

… both in the reconstruction and in the model results, the rate of warming is greater in continental West Antarctica, particularly in spring and winter, than either on the Peninsula or in East Antarctica…. This is related to SST changes and the location of sea ice anomalies, particularly during the latter period (1979–2003), when they are strongly zonally asymmetric, with significant losses in the WestAntarctic sector but small gains around the rest of the continent.

In other words, during the period where we have good sea ice data, areas with little sea ice are always areas of surface warming in the Antarctic. It was already well established before our work that sea ice anomalies play a major role in the observed waring on the Antarctic Peninsula’s west coast. Our work showed that this is also true in West Antarctica, and is fully confirmed by O’Donnell et al.’s analysis. The only point of disagreement is in winter, in the earlier part of the record only (prior to the satellite era).

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