The temperature record from Byrd Station, a scientific outpost in the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), demonstrates a marked increase of 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 degrees Celsius) in average annual temperature since 1958—that is, three times faster than the average temperature rise around the globe.
This temperature increase is nearly double what previous research has suggested, and reveals—for the first time—warming trends during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere (December through February), said David Bromwich, professor of geography at Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center.
“Our record suggests that continued summer warming in West Antarctica could upset the surface mass balance of the ice sheet, so that the region could make an even bigger contribution to sea level rise than it already does,” said Bromwich.
“Even without generating significant mass loss directly, surface melting on the WAIS could contribute to sea level indirectly, by weakening the West Antarctic ice shelves that restrain the region’s natural ice flow into the ocean,” he added.
Andrew Monaghan, study co-author and scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), said that these findings place West Antarctica among the fastest-warming regions on Earth.
“We’ve already seen enhanced surface melting contribute to the breakup of the Antarctic’s Larsen B Ice Shelf, where glaciers at the edge discharged massive sections of ice into the ocean that contributed to sea level rise. The stakes would be much higher if a similar event occurred to an ice shelf restraining one of the enormous WAIS glaciers,” Monaghan said.
Researchers consider the WAIS especially sensitive to climate change, explained Ohio State University doctoral student Julien Nicolas. Since the base of the ice sheet rests below sea level, it is vulnerable to direct contact with warm ocean water. Its melting currently contributes 0.3 mm to sea level rise each year—second to Greenland, whose contribution to sea level rise has been estimated as high as 0.7 mm per year.
The findings were published online this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.