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The world’s biggest heatwave happened in Antarctica last year - what does this mean for our planet?

Penguins walk on the shore of Bahia Almirantazgo in Antarctica, January 2015.
Penguins walk on the shore of Bahia Almirantazgo in Antarctica, January 2015. Copyright AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File
Copyright AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File
By Euronews Green with APTN
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Faster action is needed to address Antarctica’s extreme weather, a new report warns.

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Even in Antarctica - one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth - temperature records are being shattered.

The southernmost continent is not isolated from the extreme weather associated with human-caused climate change, according to a new paper in Frontiers in Environmental Science. 

"The world's largest ever heatwave in terms of deviation from the normal temperature happened last year in Antarctica," says Martin Siegert, a glaciologist, professor of geosciences at University of Exeter and lead author on the paper.

Temperatures that usually average around -50C rose to -10C. "That's absolutely unheard of to have a heatwave of that magnitude."

The paper tries to make a coherent picture of a place that has been a climate change oddball.

What's happening to the weather in Antarctica?

Antarctica's western end, especially its peninsula, has seen dramatic ice sheet melt. This threatens massive sea level rises over the next few centuries, while the eastern side has at times gained ice

One western glacier is melting so fast that scientists have nicknamed it the Doomsday Glacier. And Antarctic sea ice veered from record high to shocking amounts far lower than ever seen. 

“A changing Antarctica is bad news for our planet,” warns Siegert. 

If the trend continues, coastlines will disappear and global warming will increase due to the loss of sunlight-reflecting ice. That's something scientists have long been watching and are even more concerned about now.

Siegert and his team wanted to understand more about the causes of extreme events, and whether more of those events would happen as a result of burning fossil fuels

Climate change effects in Antarctica are 'sporadic and unpredictable'

The study synthesises research on a wide range of topics including atmosphere and weather patterns, sea ice, land ice and ice shelves and marine and land biology. 

It finds that climate change extremes are getting worse in a place that once seemed slightly shielded from global warming. The continent “is not a static giant frozen in time,” the paper's authors say, but instead feels climate change’s wrath and extremes “sporadically and unpredictably.”

Anna Hogg, a co-author on the paper and professor at the University of Leeds, says that their work illustrates complex and connected changes between the ice, ocean and air. “Once you’ve made a big change, it can then be really hard to sort of turn that around,” she says.

Human-caused climate change is bringing sea ice to an all-time low

It's a change with links to human activity. “This is indeed a strong signature of climate change,” Helen Fricker, a professor of geophysics with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved with the study, says. “It’s not good.”

Siegert and Hogg's team looked at several factors including heatwaves, loss of sea ice, collapse of ice shelves and impacts on biodiversity. Siegert describes last year's heat wave in Antarctica, which brought research station thermometers to a whopping 38C above normal temperatures. 

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Hogg says that sea ice is at an all time low, a major cause for concern: In the Antarctic, the July average for sea ice extent fell below previous low set in 2022. And ice shelves, which can be the size of several large buildings, are also under threat as they melt and eventually collapse.

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File
ntarctica is already being and will continue to be affected by more frequent and severe extreme weather events, a new study finds.AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File

What are the effects of extreme weather in Antarctica?

Sea ice and ice shelves work like a cork in a bottle, holding back glaciers that would otherwise rush into the ocean. When they disappear, glaciers flow many times faster. 

What's more, the disappearance of large swaths of ice accelerates warming like swapping a white T-shirt for a black one on a hot summer day. Replace ice with land or water, and suddenly the earth is absorbing the sun's rays rather than reflecting them.

The topic of extremes “is with us more frequently and will be with us even more frequently in the future,” says Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, not involved with the research. 

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Systems like Antarctica are extreme by nature, but that doesn't mean they're not vulnerable, he adds - they're highly susceptible to small changes.

An 'alarming' increase in 'destructive events'

“I'm not an alarmist, but what we see is alarming,” says Waleed Abdalati, an environmental researcher at the University of Colorado, not involved with the study. He says that extreme events are one thing, but when superimposed on a trend - a trend of global warming that heightens those extreme events - that's a cause for concern. 

“We can handle events,” he adds, “but we can't handle a steady increase of those destructive events.”

That's something climate scientists say we'll need to prepare for, by continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while introducing adaptation measures for sea level rise and extreme weather around the world.

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“We've been saying this for 30 years,” says Ted Scambos, an ice scientist at the University of Colorado whose paper from 2000 was cited in Siegert and Hogg's article. “I'm not surprised, I'm disappointed. I wish we were taking action faster."

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