, Volume 60, Issue 3, pp 243-274

Recent Rapid Regional Climate Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula

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Abstract

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that mean global warming was 0.6 ± 0.2 °C during the 20th century and cited anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases as the likely cause of temperature rise in the last 50 years. But this mean value conceals the substantial complexity of observed climate change, which is seasonally- and diurnally-biased, decadally-variable and geographically patchy. In particular, over the last 50 years three high-latitude areas have undergone recent rapid regional (RRR) warming, which was substantially more rapid than the global mean. However, each RRR warming occupies a different climatic regime and may have an entirely different underlying cause. We discuss the significance of RRR warming in one area, the Antarctic Peninsula. Here warming was much more rapid than in the rest of Antarctica where it was not significantly different to the global mean. We highlight climate proxies that appear to show that RRR warming on the Antarctic Peninsula is unprecedented over the last two millennia, and so unlikely to be a natural mode of variability. So while the station records do not indicate a ubiquitous polar amplification of global warming, the RRR warming on the Antarctic Peninsula might be a regional amplification of such warming. This, however, remains unproven since we cannot yet be sure what mechanism leads to such an amplification. We discuss several possible candidate mechanisms: changing oceanographic or changing atmospheric circulation, or a regional air-sea-ice feedback amplifying greenhouse warming. We can show that atmospheric warming and reduction in sea-ice duration coincide in a small area on the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, but here we cannot yet distinguish cause and effect. Thus for the present we cannot determine which process is the probable cause of RRR warming on the Antarctic Peninsula and until the mechanism initiating and sustaining the RRR warming is understood, and is convincingly reproduced in climate models, we lack a sound basis for predicting climate change in this region over the coming century.