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Antarctica shattered extreme cold records during global heat wave

While 2023 is marked by unprecedented global heat waves, an unexpected twist occurred with extreme cold temperatures in Antarctica.

A new study published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences highlights the surprising and severe cold events that struck the continent in late winter (July and August).

Antarctica and its extreme cold

Antarctica, Earth’s southernmost continent, is an icy wilderness known for its extreme cold. Covering about 14 million square kilometers, it holds 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water.

Despite its harsh environment, Antarctica is a key area for scientific research, offering insights into climate change, glaciology, and marine biology.

The continent experiences the coldest temperatures on Earth, with the lowest recorded temperature being -89.2°C (-128.6°F) at the Soviet Union’s Vostok Station in 1983.

The Antarctic climate is influenced by its high latitude and altitude, long polar nights, and persistent katabatic winds that descend from the interior. These winds can reach speeds of over 200 km/h (124 mph), contributing to the continent’s frigid conditions.

Antarctica’s ice sheets and glaciers play a crucial role in regulating global sea levels. Recent studies have shown that parts of the Antarctic ice sheet are melting at an accelerating rate, which could significantly impact coastal regions worldwide.

Additionally, the continent’s isolation has preserved unique ecosystems both on land and in the surrounding Southern Ocean, making it a natural laboratory for studying the impacts of environmental changes.

International cooperation governs Antarctica under the Antarctic Treaty System, which promotes peaceful scientific collaboration and protects the continent’s environment. Despite its remote location, Antarctica’s future remains closely linked to global climate dynamics and environmental health.

Record low cold in Antarctica

In a comprehensive examination of late winter 2023, researchers observed extreme cold temperatures across a broad region of Antarctica.

The Antarctic Meteorological Research and Data Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison noted that record cold temperatures were documented at various sites across the continent.

“Record cold temperatures were observed in our Automatic Weather Stations (AWS) network as well as other locations around the region,” said the researchers.

“These phases were marked by new record low temperatures recorded at both staffed and automatic weather stations, spanning East Antarctica, the Ross Ice Shelf, and West Antarctica to the Antarctic Peninsula.”

Contrasting climate patterns

One of the highest points, Kunlun Station, recorded its lowest temperature ever at -79.4°C, about 5°C lower than the monthly average.

Professor Minghu Ding from the State Key Laboratory of Severe Weather at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences noted: “Interestingly, at the same time, record-breaking high temperatures were occurring in South America, which is relatively close to Antarctica.”

In Chile, temperatures soared close to 40°C (104°F), while Rio de Janeiro broke a 117-year-old heat record. This stark contrast raises questions about the mixed climate signals from Antarctica.

Analyzing the cold phases

The study identified four distinct cold phases from mid-July to the end of August 2023. An analysis of 500-hPa geopotential height anomalies revealed strong negative anomalies in August 2023.

This mid-tropospheric atmospheric environment played a crucial role in the observed extreme cold temperatures.

The research suggests that both southerly flows from the continent and calm atmospheric conditions contributed to these cold spells.

Impact of cold on Antarctica’s operations

With temperatures plummeting below -50°C, essential flight operations to key research stations were severely disrupted. These temperatures risked hydraulic failure and fuel gelling in aircraft, rendering safe flights impossible.

“These extreme cold events were unprecedented and had significant operational impacts,” said David E. Mikolajczyk, the corresponding author of the study. “Understanding these conditions helps us better prepare for future challenges in Antarctic logistics.”

Climate change and extreme cold events

Climate change, primarily driven by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, is causing significant shifts in global weather patterns.

While the general trend is towards warming, this does not mean that cold weather or extreme cold events will disappear. In fact, climate change can lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather, including severe cold snaps.

Polar vortex

One key factor in this phenomenon is the disruption of the polar vortex, a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth’s poles. As the Arctic warms faster than other parts of the world, the temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator decreases.

This can weaken the polar vortex, causing it to become unstable and meander. When this happens, cold Arctic air can spill southwards into regions that usually experience milder winters.

Jet stream

Additionally, the jet stream, a fast-flowing ribbon of air high in the atmosphere, can become wavier and more erratic due to the reduced temperature gradient between the poles and the equator. This can result in prolonged periods of unusual weather, including extended cold spells.

Therefore, while the overarching trend of climate change is towards global warming, the variability in weather patterns can lead to significant cold events. These occurrences are a reminder of the complex and multifaceted nature of climate change and its impacts on our weather systems.


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