State of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean climate system

This paper reviews developments in our understanding of the state of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean climate, and its relation to the global climate system over the last few millennia. Climate over this and earlier periods has not been stable, as evidenced by the occurrence of abrupt changes in atmospheric circulation and temperature recorded in Antarctic ice core proxies for past climate. Two of the most prominent abrupt climate change events are characterized by intensification of the circumpolar westerlies (also known as the Southern Annular Mode) between ~6000 and 5000 years ago and since 1200-1000 years ago. Following the last of these is a period of major trans-Antarctic reorganization of atmospheric circulation and temperature between AD1700 and 1850. The two earlier Antarctic abrupt climate change events appear linked to but predate by several centuries even more abrupt climate change in the North Atlantic, and the end of the more recent event is coincident with reorganization of atmospheric circulation in the North Pacific. Improved understanding of such events and of the associations between abrupt climate change events recorded in both hemispheres is critical to predicting the impact and timing of future abrupt climate change events potentially forced by anthropogenic changes in greenhouse gases and aerosols. Special attention is given to the climate of the past 200 years, which was recorded by a network of recently available shallow firn cores, and to that of the past 50 years, which was monitored by the continuous instrumental record. Significant regional climate changes have taken place in the Antarctic during the past 50 years. Atmospheric temperatures have increased markedly over the Antarctic Peninsula, linked to nearby ocean warming and intensification of the circumpolar westerlies. Glaciers are retreating on the Peninsula, in Patagonia, on the sub-Antarctic islands, and in West Antarctica adjacent to the Peninsula. The penetration of marine air masses has become more pronounced over parts of West Antarctica. Above the surface, the Antarctic troposphere has warmed during winter while the stratosphere has cooled year-round. The upper kilometer of the circumpolar Southern Ocean has warmed, Antarctic Bottom Water across a wide sector off East Antarctica has freshened, and the densest bottom water in the Weddell Sea has warmed. In contrast to these regional climate changes, over most of Antarctica near-surface temperature and snowfall have not increased significantly during at least the past 50 years, and proxy data suggest that the atmospheric circulation over the interior has remained in a similar state for at least the past 200 years. Furthermore, the total sea ice cover around Antarctica has exhibited no significant overall change since reliable satellite monitoring began in the late 1970s, despite large but compensating regional changes. The inhomogeneity of Antarctic climate in space and time implies that recent Antarctic climate changes are due on the one hand to a combination of strong multi-decadal variability and anthropogenic effects and, as demonstrated by the paleoclimate record, on the other hand to multi-decadal to millennial scale and longer natural variability forced through changes in orbital insolation, greenhouse gases, solar variability, ice dynamics, and aerosols. Model projections suggest that over the 21st century the Antarctic interior will warm by 3.4° ± 1ºC, and sea ice extent will decrease by ~30%. Ice sheet models are not yet adequate enough to answer pressing questions about the effect of projected warming on mass balance and sea level. Considering the potentially major impacts of a warming climate on Antarctica, vigorous efforts are needed to better understand all aspects of the highly coupled Antarctic climate system as well as its influence on the Earth's climate and oceans.


Publication status:
Authors: Mayewski, P.A., Meredith, M.P. ORCIDORCID record for M.P. Meredith, Summerhayes, C.P., Turner, J. ORCIDORCID record for J. Turner, Worby, A., Barrett, P.J., Casassa, G., Bertler, N.A.N., Bracegirdle, T., Naveira Garabato, A.C., Bromwich, D., Campbell, H., Hamilton, G.H., Lyons, W.B., Maasch, K.A., Aoki, S., Xiao, C.

On this site: John Turner, Michael Meredith
1 January, 2009
Reviews of Geophysics / 47
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