West Antarctica: still warming

The temperature reconstruction of O’Donnell et al. (2010) confirms that West Antarctica is warming — but underestimates the rate

Eric Steig

At the end of my post last month on the history of Antarctic science I noted that I had an initial, generally favorable opinion of the paper by O’Donnell et al. in the Journal of Climate. O’Donnell et al. is the peer-reviewed outcome of a series of blog posts started two years ago, mostly aimed at criticizing the 2009 paper in Nature, of which I was the lead author. As one would expect of a peer-reviewed paper, those obviously unsupportable claims found in the original blog posts are absent, and in my view O’Donnell et al. is a perfectly acceptable addition to the literature. O’Donnell et al. suggest several improvements to the methodology we used, most of which I agree with in principle. Unfortunately, their actual implementation by O’Donnell et al. leaves something to be desired, and yield a result that is in disagreement with independent evidence for the magnitude of warming, at least in West Antarctica.

In this post, I’ll summarize the key methodological changes suggested by O’Donnell et al., discuss how their results compare with our results, and the implications for our understanding of recent Antarctic climate change. I’ll then try to make sense of how O’Donnell et al. have apparently wound up with an erroneous result.

First off, a reminder for those not familiar with it: the essential innovation in our work was to combine the surface temperature data available from satellites with the ~50 years of data from weather stations. The latter are generally considered more reliable and go back a full 50 years, but are very sparse and incomplete, whereas the satellite data provide complete spatial coverage of the continent, but only since the early 1980s. We combined the two data sets by calibrating the weather station data against the satellite data, and using the calibration to get a complete spatial picture of Antarctic temperature variability and trends for the last 50 years. The key findings were that the overall Antarctic trend was positive (but not necessarily statistically significant), and that in West Antarctica, the trends were both positive and significant, especially in winter and spring. These findings were important enough for Nature to publish them because most researchers thought that significant warming was restricted only to the Antarctic Peninsula region. None of these findings is contradicted by O’Donnell et al.’s results.

O’Donnell et al. have three main criticisms of our work. First, that the reconstruction we reported was not homogenous. That is, the first part of the reconstruction (1957 through 1981) is based entirely on a linear combination of weather station data (since there are no satellite data during that period); while the second part (1982-2006) is derived simply from the satellite data. O’Donnell et al argue that it would be better to use the only weather station data for both periods, since these data are a priori considered more reliable. (There are all sorts of potential problems with the satellite data, the chief one being that there is a ‘clear sky’ bias.) That is, one wants to calibrate the data during 1982-2006, and then use that calibration to model the temperature field for both the early and the later periods, using only the weather stations.

Second, that in doing the analysis, we retain too few (just 3) EOF patterns. These are decompositions of the satellite field into its linearly independent spatial patterns. In general, the problem with retaining too many EOFs in this sort of calculation is that one’s ability to reconstruct high order spatial patterns is limited with a sparse data set, and in general it does not makes sense to retain more than the first few EOFs. O’Donnell et al. show, however, that we could safely have retained at least 5 (and perhaps more) EOFs, and that this is likely to give a more complete picture.

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