New Report Finds That West Antarctica Is Warming at an Alarming Rate

In a region where melting could contribute *10 feet* of global sea-level rise, new measurements show temperatures ticking up twice as fast as previously thought.

byrd_field camp.jpg

The Byrd Station in West Antarctica in 2001 (Antarctic Photo Library)

For more than half a century, scientists at a remote outpost in western Antarctica have been tracking the region's weather, and a new analysis published in Nature Geoscience comes to alarming conclusions: Temperatures have lept up by 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958 -- twice as much as previously thought, making the area one of the fastest-warming in the world.

Should temperatures continue on this path, scientists fear warmer and longer periods of melting for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could result in a rapid partial collapse, as happened at the Larsen B ice shelf in just one month's time in 2002. Over the course of hundreds of years, prolonged melting in the region could contribute 10 feet of global sea-level rise, according to The New York Times. For now, though, the mean temperatures during the summer are still below freezing, but, the authors warn that the rising temperatures have "enhanced the probability of extensive melting events" as happened in the region during a period of warm weather in 2005.

The study's implications are limited to the area of Antarctica surrounding the Byrd research station, as shown in this map:


The study places western Antarctica on the short list of spots in the world experiencing this degree of climate change over the last five decades, which, as you can see, are concentrated in icier -- and therefore susceptible to melting -- parts of the globe.


The new measurements fill in the gaps of an earlier study, published in 2009, that found substantial warming in the Antarctic penninsula, just to the north. But, because the data in that study was incomplete, it came under fire by skeptics (pdf) who charged that it overestimated the rate of warming. The new paper, led by David H. Bromwich of Ohio State, focuses on newly recovered data from a single temperature record -- the Byrd station's. This more detailed portrait shows that, yes, the earlier paper was indeed a bit off in its findings, but in the other direction: It underestimated the increase in temperatures, particularly in the summer months when the ice is in danger of melting. Eric Steig, the author of the 2009 paper, told The Times, "I think their results are better than ours, and should be adopted as the best estimate."

With summer ahead in Antarctica, we'll soon have another season's worth of data to study, more information with which to fill in this picture a bit. Keep filling it in, keep filling it in. The picture is getting sharper, more detailed, and more alarming year after year.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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