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Thursday, 02 April 2020 22:08

Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month

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In late February there were reports of record-breaking high temperatures from scientists working on the Antarctic Peninsula. At the time Diana King and I were in NSW in Australia having spent the summer experiencing smoke pollution from the Australian bushfires along with extremely hot days. Our colleague Dana Bergstrom was sending us reports of rain at Davis Station in East Antarctica. Given that almost all precipitation falls as snow in Antarctica, these were strange reports. Our Chilean colleagues, Marisol Pizarro Rojas and  Gustavo Zúñiga were also reporting that there was no snow around the Escudero research station on King George Island and that every day was perfect for field work, a most a worrying development. There is always bad weather sometime in Antarctica!

Because of the news stories about extreme heat in Antarctica, I was asked to write a letter to the editor for Global Change Biology discussing these temperature extremes and what they might mean for Antarctic biodiversity. So, I reached out to Dana, Gustavo and Marisol for the insiders guide to the 2019/20 summer field season and in Australia, Diana and I started looking at the climate data. We decided we really needed a meteorological expert and so we asked Andrew Klekociuk if he could explain what was going on.

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What we didn’t expect to find was a heatwave at Casey (the station where we do most of our work). This had actually occurred in late January and our analysis showed that the whole summer season was characterised by heatwaves rolling around the continent from November to February. Unfortunately, we did not have a team at Casey this summer. We had planned to go in early February to continue the long-term monitoring that we started there in 2000.  One week before our team was due to go to Casey our trip was cancelled because of the risk that scientists would take COVID-19 to Antarctica. So, no one was there to see if our Casey moss beds were flooded by extra melt water, got heat stressed or both. However, the good news is that Antarctic winter teams appear to be free of coronavirus.

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At the end of March, the paper was published online in Global Change Biology. You can read it here, or check out the excellent synopsis written for the Conversation by Dana. We will be really interested to see what reports of biological changes arise from these extreme summer events in Antarctica.

As we see the world pivoting to manage the COVID-19 crisis, I am hopefully that we can use the same ingenuity, resolve, care and compassion to take action on climate change, so that these Antarctic summer heatwaves do not become our new normal. 

Read 294 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 April 2020 22:25
Sharon Robinson

Senior Professor at University of Wollongong

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