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Antarctica experienced the most intense heat wave ever recorded

In an extraordinary turn of events, scientists have documented the most intense heat wave ever recorded on Earth in a very unlikely place: Antarctica.

In March of 2022, a region near the eastern coast of Antarctica observed a temperature surge that was a staggering 39 degrees Celsius above the norm.  

Drastic transition 

This sudden rise in temperature, marking the transition into the continent’s autumn season, was so drastic that researchers on-site were seen in shorts, with some even removing their shirts to soak in the unusual warmth. 

For an area where March temperatures hover around minus-54 degrees Celsius, this was an extraordinary occurrence.

Largest temperature anomaly 

“It was just very apparent that it was a remarkable event,” said Edward Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, author of the study. 

“We found that temperature anomaly, the 39-degree temperature anomaly, that’s the largest anywhere ever measured anywhere in the world.”

On March 18, 2022, the daily mean temperatures hit minus-15 degrees Celsius, peaking at an hourly rate of minus-10 degrees Celsius. This is warmer than any recorded summer temperature in that region.

Unraveling the mystery

But what could cause such an unusual temperature hike in a place like Antarctica, especially during a time when the sun’s presence is limited?

The researchers set out to unravel this meteorological mystery. Their initial findings suggest that unusual winds played a pivotal role. 

Warm air from Australia 

Typically, Antarctica is shielded by west-to-east winds that keep it insulated from warmer areas further north. 

However, in this case, the winds took a detour, bringing warm air from southern Australia to East Antarctica within four days. 

Additionally, the northerly winds brought with them significant moisture resulting in snow, rain, and melting along the eastern coast of the ice sheet.

Interestingly, while Antarctica was grappling with its lowest recorded sea ice, the study suggests this did not directly influence the heat wave. 

High latitudes

The experts also discovered that the most significant temperature deviations from the norm occured at high latitudes.

Blanchard-Wrigglesworth explained that the most massive anomalies occur at high latitudes because there’s more cold air to displace near the ground, leading to warm weather events, often around winter.

Temperature variability 

Although the heat wave’s direct link to climate change remains under investigation, initial results suggest that climate change could have contributed about 2 degrees Celsius to the event. 

Jonathan Wille, a meteorologist not involved in the study, said he’s not surprised that this Antarctic heat wave registered as the largest observed temperature anomaly anywhere. 

This is because the Antarctic Plateau has some of the highest temperature variability in the world.

Study implications 

The broader implications of such heat waves are concerning. If these become a regularity in a warming world, Antarctica’s ice sheets might face unprecedented challenges. 

The team used computer models to explore future scenarios that included increased greenhouse gas emissions versus a world without increased emissions. 

The role of climate change

The experts found climate change only increased the heat wave by 2 degrees Celsius. By the end of the century, climate change could boost such a heat wave by an additional 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.

“A 2C boost for a heatwave that was 39C above average means that this heat wave would have been record shattering without the climate change signal,” Wille, a researcher at ETH Zurich, wrote in an email.

“It’s possible that climate change influenced the atmospheric dynamics like the tropical convection anomalies that led to the heat wave, but this is very difficult to quantify these things.”

Study implications 

Blanchard-Wrigglesworth said more heat waves like this in Antarctica in a warmer world could have dire effects on the ice sheet.

“If you add another five or six degrees on top of that, you’re starting to get close to the melting point,” said Blanchard-Wrigglesworth. 

If heat waves were to become more common in 50 or even 100 years, “this kind of event might trigger some impacts that maybe we didn’t have on our radar.”

The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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