News / Science & Technology

As Planet Warms, Winds Keep Antarctic Cool

Jagged mountains throw long shadows on the Antarctic peninsula Jan. 20, 2009.
Jagged mountains throw long shadows on the Antarctic peninsula Jan. 20, 2009.
Rosanne Skirble
Intense winds help Antarctica keep its cool despite climate change, according to a new study.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree global warming exists and humans are largely responsible, but  Antarctica seems to have bucked the trend, with portions of it cooling, while the rest of the planet heats up.  

The key to Antarctic weather is the wind, says Australian National University climate scientist Nerilie Abram, lead author of a new study that explains this in the context of a warmer world.  

“They control how far north the rain bands go out of the Southern ocean," Abram said. "And they are also really important for temperature and in particular for the temperature of Antarctica and also the Antarctic peninsula, which is the bit of Antarctica that juts out right into the path of those westerly winds.”  
 
LISTEN: Antarctica Cooling Explained
Antarctica Cooling Explainedi
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That westerly wind belt circulates the continent. The study in Nature Climate Change finds that those winds are now stronger and their path tighter than at any time in the past 1,000 years.  That change has been especially prominent since the 1940s.

Abram and her team reconstructed Antarctica's climate history from ice cores.  They conclude the wind has kept a large part of the continent cold, unlike anywhere else on the planet.  

“But we can explain that because as those westerly winds are getting stronger, they are actually tying [trapping] the cold air over Antarctica, and it stops warm air masses from being able to get over the continent and help to warm Antarctica," Abram said. "So this example of something that seems like a climate change paradox, we can actually explain by these greenhouse gases that are strengthening the westerly winds and isolating parts of Antarctica.”  
Antarctic cloudsi
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May 12, 2014 7:34 PM
Climate scientist Nerilie Abram of the Australian National University explains how the wind pattern that circulates Antarctica affects the Antarctic continent and beyond.(Credit: ANU Media)

But they are not isolating the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of the Western Antarctic ice sheet that lie directly in their path.  

“So as those winds have strengthened and pulled in tighter around Antarctica, they are actually bringing warmer air over those parts, particularly over the Antarctic Peninsula," she said. "And this is the part of the southern hemisphere that is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth at the moment."  

Those westerly winds have deviated from their natural course, which would have driven cold fronts into the southern hemisphere.  Instead the air is trapped over Antarctica and keeping rain from falling on Australia.

“What has been happening over the recent decades is that those westerly winds have been shifting south and we are getting fewer of those cold fronts and storms coming up and giving that really important rain," she said. "And that is why Australia is experiencing these very severe droughts.”

Abram adds the Southern ocean winds, which have intensified because of the warmer atmosphere, could revert to a more normal pattern if action were taken to reduce greenhouse gases.
Antarctic ice core drillingi
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May 12, 2014 7:34 PM
Climate scientist Nerilie Abram talks about field work from the Antarctic Penninsula where a team of researchers are drilling an ice core. (Credit: ANU Media)

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by: John Bilboe from: Australia
May 13, 2014 12:00 AM
I agree they have more spin than the pollies. Also I understand that we humans only contribute 3% to globule warming? that nature contribute the other 97%.

by: Bref from: Australia
May 12, 2014 11:37 PM
Who measured the wind 1000 years ago?
If it’s hot its global warming, if it’s cold its global warming.

As for climate change; that is a non-statement.

Who has determined which is the correct temperature, is it hotter or colder, as if we have the handbrake for weather

by: Sean from: L
May 12, 2014 11:30 PM
And I am tired of totally unscientific people like these guys sticking their heads in the ground and saying 'NO' - besides being an affront to intelligent people, they put my son and other children's futures at risk.

by: Rick Woodruff
May 12, 2014 10:32 PM
it is only a matter of time b4 comments start coming from the alarmists..my opinion is most of them have got shares in wind farms or solar panel companys..seems to be the same people most of the time..majority of people are getting sick of it..yes we all know we will have too slowly move away from fossil fuels but people are just sick of what they say so called global warming /climate change is doing...always nit picking..seems only the scientists or organisations who get funded are the ones who continue this stuff...if it is global it should be the whole planet warming..if antartica is not it is not global....but they will find away too manifest the situation

by: Skip from: Cawarral QLD
May 12, 2014 8:34 PM
Scientists have no idea are still clinging to out dated ideology, when evidence over the last 20 years shows that planet appears to not to be warming at any rate faster than any other period of the planets history considered stable. Data is proving the planet is cooling. They bend the truth to ensure their pay packed.

Cheers Slip

by: Annie Mac from: NSW
May 12, 2014 7:50 PM
I am sick to death of the lies told by scientists in an effort to keep their jobs.Every time it is said the planet is not warming, these scientists twist the facts to suit their theory.e.g. that winds are keeping the Antarctic cool. Most people have woken up to them ,thank Heavens.
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