Climate change jigsaw puzzle: Antarctic pieces missing

By: | Published: September 28, 2016 9:35 PM

Human-induced changes have caused westerly winds to shift southwards towards the Antarctica, scientists have said in a study published today but rued that a shortage of data about the inhospitable region was hampering their work.

Understanding Antarctic climate change is important not only because of the potential sea level rise locked up in the vast Antarctic ice sheet, but also the shift in the westerly winds has moved rainfall away from southern Australia. (Reuters)Understanding Antarctic climate change is important not only because of the potential sea level rise locked up in the vast Antarctic ice sheet, but also the shift in the westerly winds has moved rainfall away from southern Australia. (Reuters)

Human-induced changes have caused westerly winds to shift southwards towards the Antarctica, scientists have said in a study published today but rued that a shortage of data about the inhospitable region was hampering their work.

Understanding Antarctic climate change is important not only because of the potential sea level rise locked up in the vast Antarctic ice sheet, but also the shift in the westerly winds has moved rainfall away from southern Australia.

The study, led by Julie Jones from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography, said limited data on Antarctica’s climate is making it difficult for researchers to disentangle changes caused by human activity from natural climate fluctuations.

The inhospitable nature of the continent means that it has never had permanent inhabitants to take regular weather observations unlike most other places on the planet.

Jones and her international team of scientists confirmed that human-induced changes have caused the belt of prevailing westerly winds over the Southern Ocean to shift towards Antarctica.

In combination with increasing temperatures (this year is set to be the country’s hottest year on record) this has had profound impacts on Australian communities and ecosystems.

“The Antarctic climate is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces still missing. There are some parts of the picture which are clear, particularly the way that climate change is causing westerly winds to shift southwards, but there are still huge gaps that we need to fill in order to fully understand how much human activity is changing weather in the region,” Jones said.

“At face-value, many of the climate trends in Antarctica seem counter-intuitive for the warming world. Scientists have good theories for why, but these are difficult to prove with the short records we are working with.”

Co-author Nerilie Abram, from the Australian National University, said: “In order to better understand climate change in Antarctica, we need continued climate measurements in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, and extension of these short observational records with past climate reconstructions and climate modelling.”

The Sheffield-led research team included scientists from 19 institutions from around the world.

The research is published in Nature Climate Change.

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