The South Pole may seem like it's enduring and immutable, but a new review has shown how Antarctica has undergone “staggering” extreme changes in the face of the deepening climate crisis. Among the many concerns highlighted in the new paper, the researchers warn there's a possibility that Antarctica could eventually lose its cooling effect on the planet and start acting as a radiator.
The new review, funded by the UK Foreign Office, pieces together existing evidence on the changes that are starting to impact Antarctica in regard to weather, sea ice, ocean temperatures, glacier and ice shelf systems, and biodiversity. Their findings suggest extreme changes are impacting each and every one of these realms.
One shocking change that’s impacting Antarctica is heatwaves. In 2022, East Antarctica experienced the world’s strongest recorded heatwave, with temperatures 38.5°C (69.3°F) above average.
Simultaneously, we’re seeing a drastic loss of sea ice in the Antarctic. The minimum sea ice extent in the summer of 2022 dropped to below 2 million kilometers squared for the first time, while its winter extent fell to near-record lows for the time of year.
"2023 is (again) a year of extremes. Whereas in normal years, the Southern Ocean around Antarctica this time of the year is covered by approximately 17 million square kilometres of sea ice, equivalent to an area roughly the size of 63 New Zealands, this year, we are witnessing a staggering loss of an area of about nine New Zealands. 2023 is off the charts, literally,” Mario Krapp, an environmental and climate data scientist at GNS Science – Te Pū Ao, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.
“15 years ago, James Lovelock, co-author of the Gaia Hypothesis, said, ‘enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan’. He may have been off by five years,” Krapp added.
Such drastic change in the environment is bad news for the biodiversity that inhabits Antarctica. Higher temperatures generally result in fewer krill living in the Southern Ocean, starving many predators of their main source of food. The end result is mass die-offs throughout the food chain. As the review notes, we’re already seeing increasing numbers of dead seal pups on beaches and dwindling numbers of fish in the sea around Antarctica.
With climate change set to worsen, the researchers warn that it's “virtually certain” these kinds of events will become even more severe and common. What we’re currently seeing is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
There’s also a big fear that Antarctica could reach a major tipping point in the not-so-distant future. Antarctica cools our planet because its white icy surface reflects solar radiation back to space. As the ice and snow melt, however, it will reveal a darker and less reflective surface. In turn, the land and sea will begin to absorb more sun rays, losing their ability to cool.
This is already happening in the Northern Hemisphere’s Arctic and it’s possible we could see a similar thing in Antarctica over the next decades.
“There’s a real danger in the years ahead that Antarctica stops acting as a refrigerant for the planet and starts acting as a radiator,” said Professor Martin Siegert, lead study author and polar expert at the University of Exeter, according to New Scientist.
The study is published in Frontiers in Environmental Science.