West Antarctica: still warming

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).

Another point of complete agreement between our results and O’Donnell et al. is that the most widespread cooling occurs in fall — not summer as discussed in earlier work (e.g. Thompson and Solomon, 2000). This may be something of a problem for the hypothesis that ozone depletion is a major driver of the observed East Antarctic cooling, because the forcing is occurring in spring (when the ozone hole develops). If there is a link between the spring forcing and fall temperature, it is not a simple one, but likely would include a role for sea ice, which offers an obvious source of persistence from season to season (a paper in review by Arnour and others argues exactly this point).

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