Antarctica is normally described as the coldest place on Earth, but in 2020 it saw record heat levels, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula in the western Weddell Sea, one of the fastest-warming regions in the world.
A record high temperature of 18.3°C was recorded at the Argentine research base Esperanza on 6 February 2020 on the Antarctic mainland.
Only a few days later on 9 February, 2020 a staggering 20.7°C temperature record was also set on Seymour Island, an Antarctic island just off the Antarctic Peninsula. These figures are extraordinarily high and are unprecedented on the continent. This was the first time the 20°C barrier was broken in Antarctica.
Temperatures have risen by 3°C over the last 50 years in Antarctica as climate change has rapidly warmed the frozen continent. According to the UN Meteorological Organisation, 87% of the glaciers along the western coast in Antarctica have retreated over this period, with accelerated retreat since 2008. This shows a long-term trend rather than short-term fluctuation.
The current period of warming in Antarctica is part of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, a time period which describes rapid anthropogenic (human-influenced) climate change. Antarctica has 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water, so an increase in temperature will have severe implications globally.
If there is a 2°C rise in ocean warming, then mass melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet will occur. This will lead to the disintegration of ice shelves such as Larsen C in the Weddell Sea and a potential 3-metre rise in global sea level.
Planet Earth saw its warmest month on record in January 2020. This was quickly followed by a pattern of high pressure over Antarctica and two record temperature highs in February.
The warming effect throughout February was amplified by dry ‘foehn’ winds sweeping down the mountains of Antarctica and then compressing.
Climate change is a major threat to Antarctica. The heat map for Antarctica on 9 February 2020 is extraordinary and is the result of human-induced climate change. This is a glimpse into the future of how climate change might alter normal weather patterns across the continent.
Click the sliders to reveal the temperature isolines for February.
The situation poses a unique set of problems around collective action as the continent is a global common. Therefore it is very vulnerable to global environmental change from political inaction.