Extreme heatwaves broke out at both of Earth’s poles on March 18, with one Antarctic weather station recording temperatures 40°C (70°F) above average, while parts of the Arctic are currently 30°C (50°F) hotter than they should be. Anomalous weather events such as these have become increasingly frequent in recent years, although for both poles to experience extreme heat simultaneously is highly unusual and extremely alarming.
The onset of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere normally coincides with falling temperatures across Antarctica, while early spring tends to bring about gentle increases in Arctic temperatures. To see such staggering spikes in both regions at this time of year has therefore caused a major stir among climate scientists.
"They are opposite seasons. You don't see the north and the south (poles) both melting at the same time," said Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. "It's definitely an unusual occurrence," he told the Associated Press.
Highly irregular temperatures were recorded at numerous weather stations, with the Concordia station in Antarctica heating up to -12.2°C, which is 40 degrees hotter than average for this time of year. The high-altitude Vostok station, meanwhile, reached -17.7°C, smashing its all-time record by an incredible 15°C.
Elsewhere in Antarctica, the Terra Nova base saw temperatures reach well above freezing, with the mercury rising to 7°C.
Up in the Arctic, meanwhile, weather stations near the North Pole recorded temperatures that are not usually seen until the height of summer, with some measurements reaching 30°C above the average for this time of year. Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London, told The Guardian that these intense heatwaves “show we have entered a new extreme phase of climate change much earlier than we had expected.”
Sounding a more optimistic tone, Meier said the unseasonal burst of heat in Antarctica may be a random event caused by "a big atmospheric river" of warm air, rather than a sign of accelerated climate change. However, scientists are in agreement that the planet can ill afford a recurrence of this event, and that the effects of these simultaneous heatwaves could exacerbate the climate crisis.
Arctic ice plays a crucial role in cooling the planet by reflecting sunlight, yet increasing temperatures are causing much of this ice to melt, allowing the darker water or land beneath to absorb more of the Sun’s heat. In the Antarctic, meanwhile, melting ice is expected to contribute to a rise in global sea levels.
Last month, Antarctic summer sea ice reached its lowest ever recorded level, while some reports indicate that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by the middle of the next decade. We can only hope that this year’s Northern Hemisphere summer brings a smaller-than-expected Arctic melt.