New research shows the South Pole is warming faster than the rest of the world



Elaine Hood/NSF

Kyle Clem, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Climate scientists long thought Antarctica’s interior may not be very sensitive to warming, but our research, published today, shows a dramatic change.

Over the past 30 years, the South Pole has been one of the fastest changing places on Earth, warming more than three times more rapidly than the rest of the world.

My colleagues and I argue these warming trends are unlikely the result of natural climate variability alone. The effects of human-made climate change appear to have worked in tandem with the significant influence natural variability in the tropics has on Antarctica’s climate. Together they make the South Pole warming one of the strongest warming trends on Earth.




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The Amundsen-Scott South Pole station is the Earth’s southern-most weather observatory.
Craig Knott/NSF

The South Pole is not immune to warming

The South Pole lies within the coldest region on Earth: the Antarctic plateau. Average temperatures here range from -60℃ during winter to just -20℃ during summer.

Antarctica’s climate generally has a huge range in temperature over the course of a year, with strong regional contrasts. Most of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula were warming during the late 20th century. But the South Pole — in the remote and high-altitude continental interior — cooled until the 1980s.

Scientists have been tracking temperature at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Earth’s southernmost weather observatory, since 1957. It is one of the longest-running complete temperature records on the Antarctic continent.

Our analysis of weather station data from the South Pole shows it has warmed by 1.8℃ between 1989 and 2018, changing more rapidly since the start of the 2000s. Over the same period, the warming in West Antarctica suddenly stopped and the Antarctic Peninsula began cooling.

One of the reasons for the South Pole warming was stronger low-pressure systems and stormier weather east of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddell Sea. With clockwise flow around the low-pressure systems, this has been transporting warm, moist air onto the Antarctic plateau.

South Pole warming linked to the tropics

Our study also shows the ocean in the western tropical Pacific started warming rapidly at the same time as the South Pole. We found nearly 20% of the year-to-year temperature variations at the South Pole were linked to ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific, and several of the warmest years at the South Pole in the past two decades happened when the western tropical Pacific ocean was also unusually warm.

To investigate this possible mechanism, we performed a climate model experiment and found this ocean warming produces an atmospheric wave pattern that extends across the South Pacific to Antarctica. This results in a stronger low-pressure system in the Weddell Sea.

Map of the Antarctic continent.
National Science Foundation

We know from earlier studies that strong regional variations in temperature trends are partly due to Antarctica’s shape.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet, bordered by the South Atlantic and Indian oceans, extends further north than the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, in the South Pacific. This causes two distinctly different weather patterns with different climate impacts.

More steady, westerly winds around East Antarctica keep the local climate relatively stable, while frequent intense storms in the high-latitude South Pacific transport warm, moist air to parts of West Antarctica.

Scientists have suggested these two different weather patterns, and the mechanisms driving their variability, are the likely reason for strong regional variability in Antarctica’s temperature trends.




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What this means for the South Pole

Our analysis reveals extreme variations in South Pole temperatures can be explained in part by natural tropical variability.

To estimate the influence of human-induced climate change, we analysed more than 200 climate model simulations with observed greenhouse gas concentrations over the period between 1989 and 2018. These climate models show recent increases in greenhouse gases have possibly contributed around 1℃ of the total 1.8℃ of warming at the South Pole.

We also used the models to compare the recent warming rate to all possible 30-year South Pole temperature trends that would occur naturally without human influence. The observed warming exceeds 99.9% of all possible trends without human influence – and this means the recent warming is extremely unlikely under natural conditions, albeit not impossible. It appears the effects from tropical variability have worked together with increasing greenhouse gases, and the end result is one of the strongest warming trends on the planet.

The temperature variability at the South Pole is so extreme it masks anthropogenic effects.
Keith Vanderlinde/NSF

These climate model simulations reveal the remarkable nature of South Pole temperature variations. The observed South Pole temperature, with measurements dating back to 1957, shows 30-year temperature swings ranging from more than 1℃ of cooling during the 20th century to more than 1.8℃ of warming in the past 30 years.

This means multi-decadal temperature swings are three times stronger than the estimated warming from human-caused climate change of around 1℃.

The temperature variability at the South Pole is so extreme it currently masks human-caused effects. The Antarctic interior is one of the few places left on Earth where human-caused warming cannot be precisely determined, which means it is a challenge to say whether, or for how long, the warming will continue.

But our study reveals extreme and abrupt climate shifts are part of the climate of Antarctica’s interior. These will likely continue into the future, working to either hide human-induced warming or intensify it when natural warming processes and the human greenhouse effect work in tandem.The Conversation

Kyle Clem, Research Fellow in Climate Science, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Their fate isn’t sealed: Pacific nations can survive climate change – if locals take the lead


Rachel Clissold, The University of Queensland; Annah Piggott-McKellar, University of Melbourne; Karen E McNamara, The University of Queensland; Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast; Roselyn Kumar, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Ross Westoby, Griffith University

They contribute only 0.03% of global carbon emissions, but small island developing states, particularly in the Pacific, are at extreme risk to the threats of climate change.

Our study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides the first mega-assessment on the progress of community-based adaptation in four Pacific Island countries: the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu.




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Pacific Island nation communities have always been resilient, surviving on islands in the middle of oceans for more than 3,000 years. We can learn a lot from their adaptation methods, but climate change is an unprecedented challenge.

Effective adaptation is critical for ensuring Pacific Islanders continue living fulfilling lives in their homelands. For Australia’s part, we must ensure we’re supporting their diverse abilities and aspirations.

Short-sighted adaptation responses

Climate change brings wild, fierce and potentially more frequent hazards. In recent months, Cyclone Harold tore a strip through multiple Pacific countries, killing dozens of people, levelling homes and cutting communication lines. It may take Vanuatu a year to recover.

Expert commentary from 2019 highlighted that many adaptation responses in the Pacific have been short-sighted and, at times, even inadequate. The remains of failed seawalls, for example, litter the shorelines of many island countries, yet remain a popular adaptive solution. We cannot afford another few decades of this.




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International climate aid commitments from rich western countries barely scratch the surface of what’s needed, yet it’s likely funding will dry up for regions like the Pacific as governments scramble together money for their own countries’ escalating adaptation costs.

This includes Australia, that has long been, and continues to be, the leading donor to the region. Our government contributed about 40% of total aid between 2011 and 2017 and yet refuses to take meaningful action on climate change.

Understanding what successful adaptation should look like in developing island states is urgent to ensure existing funding creates the best outcomes.

Success stories

Our findings are based on community perspectives. We documented what factors lead to success and failure and what “best practice” might really look like.

We asked locals about the appropriateness, effectiveness, equity, impact and sustainability of the adaptation initiatives, and used this feedback to determine their success.




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The results were mixed. While our success stories illustrate what “best practice” involves, issues still emerged.

Our top two success stories centred on community efforts to protect local marine ecosystems in the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu. Nearby communities rely on these ecosystems for food, income and for supporting cultural practice.

One initiative focused on establishing a marine park with protected areas while the other involved training in crown-of-thorns starfish control. As one person told us:

we think it’s great […] we see the results and know it’s our responsibility.

Initiatives that focus on both the community and the ecosystem support self-sufficiency, so the community can maintain the initiatives even after external bodies leave and funding ceases.

Pele Island, Vanuatu. Can you see coral in the water? The community initiative was aiming to protect this coral ecosystem from crown-of-thorns starfish.
Karen McNamara, Author provided

In these two instances, the “community” was expanded to the whole island and to anyone who utilised local ecosystems, such as fishers and tourism operators.

Through this, benefits were accessible to all: “all men, all women, all pikinini [children],” we were told.

Standing the test of time

In Vanuatu, the locals deemed two initiatives on raising climate change awareness as successful, with new scientific knowledge complementing traditional knowledge.

And in the Federated States of Micronesia, locals rated two initiatives on providing tanks for water security highly. This initiative addressed the communities’ primary concerns around clean water, but also had impact beyond merely climate-related vulnerabilities.

This was a relatively simple solution that also improved financial security and minimised pollution because people no longer needed to travel to other islands to buy bottled water.

Aniwa, Vanuatu. A communal building in the village has a noticeboard, put up as part of one of the climate-awareness raising initiatives.
Rachel Clissold, Author provided

But even among success stories, standing the test of time was a challenge.

For example, while these water security initiatives boosted short-term coping capacities, they weren’t flexible for coping with likely future changes in drought severity and duration.




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Adaptation needs better future planning, especially by those who understand local processes best: the community.

Listening to locals

For an adaptation initiative to be successful, our research found it must include:

  1. local approval and ownership

  2. shared access and benefit for community members

  3. integration of local context and livelihoods

  4. big picture thinking and forward planning.

To achieve these, practitioners and researchers need to rethink community-based adaptation as more than being simply “based” in communities where ideas are imposed on them, but rather as something they wholly lead.

Communities must acknowledge and build on their strengths and traditional values, and drive their own adaptation agendas – even if this means questioning well-intentioned foreign agencies.

Being good neighbours

Pacific Islands are not passive, helpless victims, but they’ll still need help to deal with climate change.

Pacific Island leaders need more than kind words from Australian leaders.




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Last year, Fijian prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, took to Facebook to remind Australia:

by working closely together, we can turn the tides in this battle – the most urgent crisis facing not only the Pacific, but the world.

Together, we can ensure that we are earthly stewards of Fiji, Australia, and the ocean that unites us.

Together, we can pass down a planet that our children are proud to inherit.The Conversation

Rachel Clissold, Researcher, The University of Queensland; Annah Piggott-McKellar, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne; Karen E McNamara, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast; Roselyn Kumar, , University of the Sunshine Coast, and Ross Westoby, Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government



Harley Kingston/Flickr

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

A long-awaited draft review of federal environment laws is due this week. There’s a lot riding on it – particularly in light of recent events that suggest the laws are in crisis.

Late last week, the federal Auditor-General Grant Hehir tabled a damning report on federal authorities’ handling of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Incredibly, he found Australia’s premier environmental law is administered neither efficiently or effectively.

It followed news last month that mining company Rio Tinto detonated the 46,000 year old Juukan rock shelters in the Pilbara. The decision was authorised by a 50 year old Western Australian law –and the federal government failed to invoke emergency powers to stop it.

Also last month we learned state-owned Victorian logging company VicForests unlawfully logged 26 forest coupes, home to the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. The acts were contrary both to its own code of practice, and the agreement exempting VicForests from federal laws.

As relentless as Hehir’s criticisms of the department are, let there be no doubt that blame lies squarely at the feet of government. As a society, we must decide what values we want to protect, count the financial cost, then make sure governments deliver on that protection.

Destruction of the Juukan caves drew condemnation.
Richard Wainwright/AAP

Shocking report card

I’ve been involved with this Act since before it began 20 years ago. As an ACT environment official reading a draft in 1998 I was fascinated by its complexity and sweeping potential. As a federal official responsible for administering, then reforming, the Act from 2007-2012, I encountered some of the issues identified by the audit, in milder form.

But I was still shocked by Hehir’s report. It’s so comprehensively scathing that the department barely took a trick.

Overall, the audit found that despite the EPBC Act being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since it began, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of the laws is neither efficient nor effective.




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While the government is focused on efficiency, the lack of effectiveness worries me most – especially findings concerning so-called “environmental offsets”. These are measures designed to compensate for unavoidable losses, such as creating a nature reserve near a site to be cleared.

In the early years of the law, offsets were rare. By 2015 they featured in almost 90% of decisions, dropping to about 75% last year. In effect, we now rely on offsets to protect the environment.

The Auditor-General found that the absence of guidance and quality control for offsets has led to “realised risks”.

the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards.
WWF Australia

For example, offsets must be mapped and disclosed publicly, to ensure their integrity. But not only did the department fail to create a public register, in 2019 it stopped loading offset data into its systems altogether. This makes it likely offsets will be forgotten and so either destroyed later, or put up a second time and thus double-counted.

Hehir cites one example where the department accepted offsets for damage to koala habitat in 2015 that did not meet its offset standards. After negotiations with the developer and involvement from the Minister’s office, the department accepted the offsets. Worse, the developer secured a futher non-complying offset for a second development in 2018, arguing for consistency with the previous decision.

Apart from politicisation and failure to protect the environment, this case reveals a significant legal issue. Under administrative law, a decision is invalid if it has regard to an “irrelevant consideration”. An offset in one development in 2015 is surely irrelevant to an offset in another development in 2018.




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Offsets aside, the Auditor-General higlighted key risks such as high volumes of unapproved land clearing for agriculture, and non-compliance in residential and mining developments. The department had proposed actions to address the issues, but made no progress on them.

And the report found arrangements to monitor whether approval conditions had been met before work started on a project were inadequate, which “leaves the department poorly positioned to prevent adverse environmental outcomes”.

At the end of the day, the federal department doesn’t have the tools to distinguish whether an environmental effect is the result of its own regulations, or other factors such as state programs or extreme weather. Essentially, it doesn’t know if the Act is delivering any environmental benefits at all.

The corroborree frog, which is critically endangered.
Taronga Zoo

How did this happen?

The EPBC Act itself remains a powerful instrument. Certainly changes are needed, but the more significant problems lie in the processes that should support it: plans and policies, information systems and resourcing.

As I wrote last month, between 2013 and 2019 the federal environment department’s budget was cut by an estimated 39.7%.

And while effective administration of the Act requires good information, this can be hard to come by. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.




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Officials are constrained here. The audit scope does not extend to the government decisions shaping departmental performance. And the department loyally refrains from complaining that government decisions leave it few options.

So while the audit office and the department might believe extensive government cuts are the underlying problem, neither can say so. I’m not excusing the department’s poor performance, but it must manage with what it’s given. When faced with critical audit findings, it can only pledge to “reprioritise” resources.

Vicforests illegally logged Leadbeater’s possum habitat.
D. Harley/Flickr

A national conversation

There is a small saving grace here. Hehir says the department asked that his report be timed to inform Professor Graeme Samuel’s 10-year review of the EPBC Act. Hehir timed it perfectly – Samuel’s draft report is due by tomorrow. Let’s hope it recommends comprehensive action, and that the final report in October follows through.

Beyond Samuel’s review, we need a national conversation on how to fix laws protecting our environment and heritage. The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, unlawful logging of Victorian forests and the Auditor-General’s report are incontrovertible evidence the laws are failing.

I don’t believe we can lock nature up. But we must look after the things that enable nature to provide not just life, but quality of life. This includes a stable climate, our Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage and the resilience that comes from nature’s richness and diversity.The Conversation

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.