London: Researchers have found why continental West Antarctica has steadily warmed for at least 30 years.
New University of Washington research showed that it is the rising sea surface temperatures in the area of the Pacific Ocean along the equator and near the International Date Line drive atmospheric circulation that has caused some of the largest shifts in Antarctic climate in recent decades.
The warmer water generates rising air that creates a large wave structure in the atmosphere called a Rossby wave train, which brings warmer temperatures to West Antarctica during winter and spring.
Antarctica is somewhat isolated by the vast Southern Ocean, but the new results "show that it is still affected by climate changes elsewhere on the planet," said Eric Steig, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the UW Quaternary Research Center.
The scientists used surface and satellite temperature observations to show a strong statistical connection between warmer temperatures in Antarctica, largely brought by westerly winds associated with high pressure over the Amundsen Sea adjacent to West Antarctica, and sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific Ocean.
They found a strong relationship between central Pacific sea-surface readings and Antarctic temperatures during winter months, June through August. Though not as pronounced, the effect also appeared in the spring months of September through November.
Using observed changes in tropical sea surface temperatures, the researchers found they could account for half to all of the observed winter temperature changes in West Antarctica, depending on which observations are used for comparison.
Steig noted that the influence of Rossby waves on West Antarctic climate is not a new idea, but this is the first time such waves have been shown to be associated with long-term changes in Antarctic temperature.
The study is detailed in the journal Nature Geoscience