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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

Just In