Normally we consider extreme heatwaves to be taking place largely in the warm and temperate land masses of the United States and Europe. These areas already are warm in summer; the heatwaves cause them to become much hotter.
Yet at the southernmost point on the planet, where the weather is among the coldest on earth, equally frightening weather events are taking place.
So much so that ironically the largest recorded heatwave took place in one of the coldest areas of the world in 2022. The temperature soared 100 degrees above the average in East Antarctica. The record consists not just in the temperature itself but in the amount it surged above the temperature that is normal in that area at that time of the year.
Not only that, but winter sea ice formation in the southernmost part of the planet is at its lowest point ever on record.
Indeed, heatwaves are increasingly affecting the seas and the polar ice caps. Some experts consider these heatwaves to be the marine equivalent of highly damaging wildfires.
Unlike their land-based counterparts, these periods of ocean warming can continue for months or even years, leading to massive loss of marine life.
These heatwaves also are causing other crises, such as economic declines and displacements.
Now researchers at the University of Exeter in Britain are warning that ocean heatwaves in Antarctica —normally one of the coldest areas in the world—are virtually certain to take place again in the future, with damaging consequences not only to the southern icecap but also to the entire world.
They go so far as to suggest that ocean heatwaves and the accompanying significant loss of polar ice are nearly certain to become the “new normal” in the years ahead.
Recent extremes in Antarctica might be the “tip of the iceberg,” the scientists warn.
Extreme weather events are known to affect the globe through heatwaves and wildfires, heavy flooding and rainfall, such as those seen in the United States and Europe this summer, says Professor Anna Hogg, co-author of the study. However, they also impact the remote polar regions, she adds.
Antarctic sea ice, glaciers, and natural ecosystems are all affected by extreme weather events.
The research team reviewed a wide range of evidence relating to extreme weather events in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. They looked at weather, ocean temperatures, sea ice, ice shelf, and glacier systems.
Eventually they concluded that Antarctica’s fragile environment might be subject to considerable damage and stress in the future.
Change in the Antarctic has implications globally, says Professor Martin Siegert, the lead author of the study. Cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions to net zero is our best hope of preserving Antarctica, he says, adding that this must matter to every country—and to every person—on the planet.
As a result, the scientists who conducted the in-depth study are calling for urgent policy action to try to prevent this disaster from happening.
It is essential that international policy and treaties are implemented in order to protect these regions, which are beautiful and also delicate, Hogg says.
Siegert points out that those countries who are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty have pledged to preserve the environment in this fragile and remote place. Among the signatories are the United States, Britain, China and India.
Yet by continuing to explore, extract, and burn fossil fuels anywhere in the world, these countries are impacting the environment of Antarctica in ways that are inconsistent with the pledge that they made, Hogg says.
Impacts on Animals
Extreme weather events also can affect biodiversity, the researchers say.
For example, high temperatures have been connected with years of lower numbers of krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that is eaten by larger sea animals, such as whales and seals. These lower numbers, in turn, have led to breeding failures of animals that are reliant on krill. Evidence for these failures is to be found in the many dead fur seal pups that are being found on beaches.
The University of Exeter study shows how records of sea ice have been sharply lower and lower each year since 2017, says Dr. Caroline Holmes, an expert in sea ice at British Antarctic Survey.
Without floating sea ice in Antarctica global temperatures will be warmer because the ice’s white, bright surface acts as a mirror and helps to keep the planet cool. It also plays a specially important role in controlling ocean currents and might act as a buffer that helps to stop glaciers and floating ice shelves from collapsing and falling into the water, adding to sea levels around the world.
After the ice pack was at a record high in 2015, it fell in 2017 to a record low, Holmes says.
It continued to fall and the record low was again broken in 2022 and most recently the sea recorded a new low in 2023, a fall of almost 10% from the 2022 year low.
Bigger than Greenland
With the Antarctic ice reaching a record low there is now an area of open ocean bigger than Greenland, Holmes explains. If it were a country, it would be the tenth largest in the world.
As a result, over the years, the amount of sea ice has fallen farther and farther behind the point at which it should be for this time of the year.
The record low minimum and slow freeze-up are staggering because they fall so far out of the range that scientists have come to accept, Holmes says.
In addition to observing those records, scientists are realizing that deep links exist between extreme events in various parts of the Antarctic biological and physical systems. Almost all of them are vulnerable to the impact of human influence in some way, Holmes adds.
An additional danger that is caused by the retreat of the sea ice in the Antarctic is that more areas will be vulnerable to the influence of human activities, the scientists point out. New areas will be accessible to ships. The result could be more destruction of the Antarctic wild life and environment.
Careful management will be needed in order to protect sites that are vulnerable.
As a result, the satellites that are operated by the European Space Agency and the European Commission Copernicus Sentinel satellites will be an essential tool for regular monitoring of the whole Antarctic region and the Southern Ocean, Siegert says.
The data that is gathered by the satellites can be used to measure the thickness of the sea ice, ice speed, and the loss of ice at a highly fine resolution.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.