Climate: Strengthening circumpolar winds trapping cold air over Antarctica

An international research team explores the geological history of the Gamburtsev Mountains, buried under two miles of ice in eastern Antarctica.
New data helps explain Antarctic climate change.

Study helps explain regional temperature patterns

Staff Report

FRISCO ā€” Strengthening circumpolar winds in the southern hemisphere are trapping cold air over Antarctica and slowing global warming in the region, according to new research led by scientists with Australian National University.

Those westerly winds are stronger than any time in the last 1,000 years, the scientists said after carefully studying ice core samples and comparing the data with other long-term climate records. The findings help explain why Antarctica is not warming as much as other continents, and why southern Australia is recording more droughts.

The study also linked the intensifying winds with increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“With greenhouse warming, Antarctica is actually stealing more of Australia’s rainfall. It’s not good news ā€“ as greenhouse gases continue to rise we’ll get fewer storms chased up into Australia,” said lead researcher Dr. Nerilie Abram. “As the westerly winds are getting tighter they’re actually trapping more of the cold air over Antarctica,” Abram said. “This is why Antarctica has bucked the trend. Every other continent is warming, and the Arctic is warming fastest of anywhere on earth,” she said.

“The strengthening of these winds has been particularly prominent over the past 70 years, and by combining our observations with climate models we can clearly link this to rising greenhouse gas levels.”

While most of Antarctica is remaining cold, rapid increases in summer ice melt, glacier retreat and ice shelf collapses are being observed in Antarctic Peninsula, where the stronger winds passing through Drake Passage are making the climate warm exceptionally quickly.

Until this study, published in Nature Climate Change, Antarctic climate observations were available only from the middle of last century.

By analyzing ice cores from Antarctica, along with data from tree rings and lakes in South America, Dr Abram and her colleagues were able to extend the history of the westerly winds back over the last millennium.

Study co-authors Dr Robert Mulvaney and Professor Matthew England said the study answered key questions about climate change in Antarctica.

“Strengthening of these westerly winds helps us to explain why large parts of the Antarctic continent are not yet showing evidence of climate warming,” said Dr Mulvaney, from the British Antarctic Survey.

“This new research suggests that climate models do a good job of capturing how the westerly winds respond to increasing greenhouse gases,” added Professor England, from the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW.

“This isn’t good news for farmers reliant on winter rainfall over the southern part of Australia.”



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