Climate change in Antarctica: Natural temperature variability underestimated

17.04.2015

Cold spell superimposes man-made warming: The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the tipping elements in the climate system and hence of vital importance for our planet’s future under man-made climate change. Even a partial melting of the enormous ice masses of Antarctica would raise sea-levels substantially. Therefore it is of utmost importance to provide sound knowledge on the extent of anthropogenic warming of the ice-covered continent. A new analysis by physicists from Gießen shows that the uncertainties in the temperature trends over Antarctica are larger than previously estimated. Scientists from Universität Hamburg and Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung also contributed to the study.

Uncertainties in temperature trends over Antarctica are larger than previously estimated.

“So far it seemed there were hardly any major natural temperature fluctuations in Antarctica, so almost every rise in temperature was attributed to human influence,” says Armin Bunde of Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen (JLU). “Global warming as a result of our greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels is a fact. However, the human influence on the warming of West Antarctica is much smaller than previously thought. The warming of East Antarctica up to now can even be explained by natural variability alone.” The results of their study are now published in the journal Climate Dynamics. 

The melting of Antarctic ice shelves is not only influenced by warming air  but also by warming oceans, causing ice loss at the coast. However, as there are no sufficient long-term records for Antarctic ocean warming yet, the study focuses on air temperature trends. In collaboration with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Christian Franzke of the Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction (CliSAP) of Hamburg University, the physicists of JLU Armin Bunde and Josef Luderer were able to show that there are major and very persistent temperature fluctuations in Antarctica.

“The climate in Antarctica, just like the global climate, tends to be distinctly persistent by nature – it remains in certain temperature ranges for a long time before it changes. This creates a temporal temperature structure of highs and lows,” explains Christian Franzke. “A low, i.e. a longer cold period, will be followed by a longer warm period, and this natural warming has to be differentiated from the superimposed anthropogenic warming,” adds Armin Bunde. The scientists did not only analyze data from individual measuring stations but also generated regional averages. The results show a human influence on the warming of West Antarctica, while this influence is weaker than previously thought. However, the warming of Antarctica altogether will likely increase more strongly soon.

For several years temperatures in Antarctica, but also globally, have been increasing less rapidly than in the 1990s. There are a number of reasons for this, e.g. the oceans buffering warmth. The study now published by the German team of scientists shows that man-made global warming has not been pausing - it was temporarily superimposed and therefore hidden by long-term natural climate fluctuations like in Antarctica. “Our estimates show that we are currently facing a natural cooling period – while temperatures nonetheless rise slowly but inexorably, due to our heating up the atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. “At the end of this natural cold spell temperatures will rise even more fiercely. Globally, but also in Antarctica which therefore is in danger of tipping”.  In fact, in March 2015 two Antarctic measuring stations registered high-temperature records.  

More information:
Josef Ludescher, Armin Bunde, Christian L. E. Franzke, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: Long-term persistence enhances uncertainty about anthropogenic warming of West Antarctica. Climate Dynamics, 16 Apr 2015. DOI: 10.1007/s00382-015-2582-5

Joint press release of Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen (JLU), Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung (PIK) and Universität Hamburg