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Science

Arctic and Antarctica Polar Opposites

Larsen_B_CollapseThere’s nothing quite as nice as a really catchy title that perfectly sums up your story. If you want to leave it at that, then you’ve probably got the whole of the story. However if you want to know just a bit more about how climate change is affecting our planet’s poles, then keep reading.

Speaking in a telephone briefing last Friday, Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said that the Arctic and Antarctic are exhibiting opposite effects to the climate change affecting our planet.

It has been well documented that the North Pole is suffering from melting ice; however down south, in Antarctica, the climate change is powering winds that lower the temperature. “All the evidence points toward human-made effects playing a major role in the changes that we see at both poles and evidence that contradicts this is very hard to find,” said Francis.

To be published in the May 6th edition of the journal Eos, Francis and her co-authors conducted an examination of many previous studies about polar climate, and concluded that it “further depletes the arsenal of those who insist that human-caused climate change is nothing to worry about.”

The Arctic

The paper rightfully combines man-made global warming with natural variation, to explain what is happening in the north. They describe the conditions as a “perfect Arctic storm,” referring to human-generated carbon dioxide emissions and natural climate variations.

“Natural climate variability and global warming were actually working together and they’ve sent the Arctic into a new state for the climate that has much less sea ice,” said James Overland, an oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There’s very little chance for the climate to return to the conditions of 20 years ago.”

Antarctica

Conversely, Antarctica is exhibiting very different characteristics; and researchers believe that is because of the ozone hole that hovers above.

Gareth Marshall, of the British Antarctic Survey, points to changes in air pressure combined with the depleted stratospheric levels of ozone as the culprits for an increase in westerly winds. These winds sweep in along the Southern Ocean, isolating much of Antarctica from the impact of global warming.

The notable exception to this however is the Antarctic Peninsula, which sits just above the latitudes at which the winds sweep in. We have already seen what happens to locations that are not protected by these westerly winds (ie, the breaking up of the Larson Ice Shelf).

Good News / Bad News

The late 90’s – especially here in Australia where we are one of the nations closest and most affected by the ozone hole – was predominated by the need to change our ways. We had to stop using less of the chemicals that bore the hole in the ozone layer. Experts believe that the ozone layer will be fully recovered by 2070, as a result of strict international agreements banning these chemicals.

Subsequently, Francis and her colleagues believe that the ozone’s recovery will open the way for Antarctica to be subject to the same effects that are eating away at its northern cousin. It is, in all its glory, the epitome of “good news/bad news.”

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, depicting the collapsing Larsen B Ice Shelf and a comparison to the U.S. state of Rhode Island.




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