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Five basic Antarctic facts for climate change sceptics

Antarctica Icebergs

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is “high confidence that ice shelves around the Antarctic peninsula continue a long-term trend of retreat and partial collapse”. Photograph: AAP


Powered by article titled “Antarctic ship stranding delights climate change sceptics” was written by Oliver Milman, for on Thursday 2nd January 2014 04.31 UTC

To most people, the prolonged stranding of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy in thick pack ice off the coast of Antarctica is an unfortunate incident that provided passengers with rather static scenery for their Christmas and New Year celebrations.

But to some climate change contrarians, repeated attempts to free the vessel from the ice are proof that the theory of climate change is flawed or, at best, exaggerated. After all, a warming planet has no ice at all, right?

In Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Roger Franklin dispensed with analysis of ice extent, the cyrosphere and the like to get to the heart of the matter – expedition leader Chris Turney is a “warmist” whose understanding of Antarctica amounts to little more than it gets “really, really cold”.

The Australian newspaper darkly intoned that the stranding was a “hard lesson for those who persistently exaggerate the impact of global warming”.

Helpfully, the newspaper points out that researchers aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy have suffered an “embarrassing failure” in their mission, which apparently was not to follow in the footsteps of explorer Douglas Mawson and build on his scientific observations but to prove beyond doubt that climate change is real.

ABC science broadcaster Adam Spencer took to Twitter – another of the The Australian’s bugbears – to lament that “you’d fail a year 8 science test if you presented the misunderstandings” contained in The Australian’s editorial. To help clear up the confusion, here are some basic Antarctic facts.

It is large and cold

The Antarctic is an enormous frozen continent that covers about a fifth of the southern hemisphere. It is the driest, windiest continent on Earth, covered by ice that can reach 4km deep. A new world record for a low temperature was set in December when a NASA satellite clocked a reading of minus 93.3C on the east Antarctic plateau.

Surrounding the vast glacial, or land-based, ice is sea ice, which contracts and expands depending on the season. This is an important distinction, which we will get to shortly.

It is not the same as the Arctic

The Arctic (around the north pole, doesn’t have penguins, but has polar bears) is very different from the Antarctic (around the south pole, has penguins, but not polar bears).

Essentially, the Antarctic is a continent of ice surrounded by cold water. The Arctic is a semi-enclosed ocean, almost completely surrounded by land. Steadily warming land and sea temperatures have had a visible impact on the Arctic, with its extent reaching record lows in recent years.

The loss of ice in Antarctica does not appear to be as dramatic and it is even increasing in places, leading some to believe this means global warming is not occurring.

“The Arctic is warming much faster than the Antarctic because it’s an open ocean surrounded by continents,” said Tony Press, chief executive of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre based at the University of Tasmania.

“When people talk about an increase in ice they are actually talking about sea ice, which is completely different from continental ice. Warmer oceans help melt the ice and make it thinner, which has been observed in the Arctic. In Antarctica it’s more complicated. It is losing continental ice while sea ice has been increasing by about 1% a decade.”

Climate change is having varying impacts

Studies have found Antarctica has lost about 100bn tonnes of continental ice a year since 1993, causing the global sea level to rise by about 0.2mm a year.

The latest climate report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last year, said there was “high confidence” that the Antarctic ice sheet had been losing ice during the past two decades, mainly from the northern and western parts of the continent, near South America.

“There is high confidence that ice shelves around the Antarctic peninsula continue a long-term trend of retreat and partial collapse that began decades ago,” the report added.


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