Startling heatwaves at both of Earth’s poles are causing alarm among climate scientists, who have warned the “unprecedented” events could signal faster and abrupt climate breakdown.
Over the past weekend, climate scientists’ minds were left blown away after temperatures at some Arctic weather stations recorded temperatures 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, while in Antarctica, temperatures hit 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.
The old records weren’t just broken, they were obliterated. “Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” is how researcher Stefano Di Battista said, per the Washington Post.
“Stunning,” says Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. “Wow. I have never seen anything like this in the Antarctic,” says University of Colorado ice scientist Ted Scambos.
At this particular time of the year, temperatures in the Antarctic should normally start cooling as winter in the Southern Hemisphere begins, according to The Guardian. Conversely, the Arctic is slowly emerging from its winter, as days lengthen. For both poles to show such heating at once is unprecedented.
Disruption in Earth’s climate systems
The rapid rising of temperatures at the poles is a sign of the disruption in Earth’s climate systems, with the dangers being two-fold: heatwaves at the poles are a strong signal of the damage humanity is causing to our climate and the melting that could also trigger further cascading changes that will accelerate climate breakdown.
Just how warm it may be is actually relative. In Antarctica, for example, a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded at the Concordia station, which might seem chilly until you realize it’s typically 60-below at this time of year.
“At this time of year, the Antarctic should be rapidly cooling after its summer, and the Arctic only slowly emerging from its winter, as days lengthen,” explains the Guardian. “For both poles to show such heating at once is unprecedented.”
What’s even more concerning – Antarctica has not been warming as quickly as other parts of the planet in recent years, particularly the Arctic.
Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said the extreme weather being recorded was exceeding predictions to a worrying extent.
“The warming of the Arctic and Antarctic is cause for concern, and the increase in extreme weather events – of which these are an example – is a cause for concern as well,” he said.
“The models have done a good job projecting the overall warming, but we’ve argued that extreme events are exceeding model projections. These events drive home the urgency of action.”
So, what’s going on?
There may be a bit of an explanation for what is happening at the South Pole. Scientists say that in Antarctica, a giant “atmospheric river” that brought in warm, moist air is blamed.
While in the Arctic, warm Atlantic air rolled in off the coast of Greenland, causing elevated temperatures. But as Mann pointed out, these events do raise the specter of climate change, and that is something to worry about.
James Hansen, former NASA chief scientist and one of the first to warn governments of global heating more than three decades ago, notes that “The average sea ice thickness in the Arctic has been declining, so it’s ripe for large sea ice loss.
“The effect of reduced sea ice cover is to amplify Earth’s energy imbalance that’s caused by increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) — the GHGs reduce outgoing heat radiation, thus causing a net imbalance that’s heating the planet. Reduced sea ice cover increases the planetary energy imbalance, as a dark ocean reflects less sunlight than sea ice does.”