As President Obama ploughs through his troublesome large in tray, his inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place” could be ringing in his ears with an added sense of urgency.
One of his scientific advisors should show him a picture of Antarctica that has just been published that shows a red streak down the left hand side. That red streak spells trouble.
Antarctica was seemingly the only continent on Earth that had not been warming up because of climate change. But now new scientific research has concluded that the continent is in fact getting warmer.
The lead scientist Eric Steig from the University of Washington in Seattle and his team, looked at the sparse temperature records of the past 50 years and combined them with satellite records. Combining these two, they concluded that a large area of Antarctica has warmed up.
They have concluded that Anarctica has warmed about 0.6C over the last 50 years, although it is not warming uniformly. Temperatures on the West Antarctica ice sheet, which includes the Antarctic peninsula and is as large as California, Texas, Alaska and Kansas put together, are rising much faster than in East Antarctica.
Writing in the journal Nature, they argue the trend is “difficult to explain” without the effect of rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. “It’s much less than Arctic warming but it pretty much is on par with global average warming,” Steig says.
As previous studies have not found a warming trend in Antarctica, Steig’s conclusion is significant. “This shouldn’t cause anyone to worry more than they did before. But what it does do is kill off the rather silly and careless statements out there from some people to the effect that Antarctica’s cooling,” said Steig. So bang goes one of the sceptic’s last arguments.
Meanwhile Antarctica continues to melt. David Vaughan from the British Antarctic Survey is currently keeping a worried eye on the Wilkins Ice Sheet, about 15,000 sq km in area, which is probably about to break free. “We landed on the ice shelf just two days ago — flimsy looking piece of ice — and that appears to be hanging on by the skin of its teeth,” Vaughan says.
It could break free at any time, he says.