Crafting a holistic response to polar climate change

By WEI TING / 03-21-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Wei Ting stands at the Arctic Yellow River Station in China in 2015 Photo: PROVIDED BY WEI TING

Heatwaves are occurring with greater frequency, reaching even the frigid expanse of Antarctica. In 2022, the continent witnessed its most extensive heatwave on record. Instances of extreme events are becoming more common. For instance, a century ago, the idea of rainfall in Antarctica was beyond anyone’s imagination. Yet, this unprecedented phenomenon has now been observed on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the highest recorded temperature has now surpassed 18 degrees Celsius. Recent extreme weather events underscore the profound transformations our planet is undergoing. These remarkably severe extreme weather events will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for the entire planet. If emissions are not reduced, we will be passing on formidable challenges to future generations for centuries to come.

Cause for concern

The significance of Antarctica lies in its possession of Earth’s largest ice sheet; a complete melt would raise global sea levels by approximately 58 meters. Additionally, Antarctica serves as the Earth’s primary cold source, playing a crucial role in regulating the global climate. However, with global warming and the rise in temperatures in Antarctica, extreme events have become increasingly common in recent years, setting new records. For instance, on February 6, 2020, the Esperanza research station on the Antarctic Peninsula recorded an extraordinary high temperature of 18.3°C, marking the highest temperature ever observed across Antarctica. In March 2022, Antarctica experienced its strongest recorded explosive warming event, with temperatures at the Concordia station in the interior rising by 49.0°C within four days, reaching -12.2°C on March 18th. These extreme warm events in Antarctica can affect the morphology of Antarctic ice shelves, especially when temperatures exceed the melting point and persist for an extended period, leading to the collapse of Antarctic ice shelves and resulting in a rise in global sea levels.

According to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report and the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, Antarctica is projected to continue warming over the next century. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet may partially or completely disintegrate, causing a rise in sea levels by several meters. Surrounding sea ice in Antarctica is also rapidly decreasing, with the continent’s white snow and ice being replaced by darker ocean or land surfaces, significantly weakening Antarctica’s role as a cold source. This will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the climate and environment of the entire planet, further exacerbating future global warming.

Arctic amplification effect  

The surface of Greenland, the world’s largest island, is approximately 85% covered by ice, making it the second-largest ice sheet on Earth after Antarctica. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, global sea levels would rise by about 7 meters. In recent years, the Arctic has witnessed a trend of increasingly frequent and intense extreme warm events, accompanied by several instances of extreme melting of the Greenland ice sheet. In the summer of 2012, unprecedented warming in Greenland led to melting on 96% of the ice sheet’s surface, resulting in historically low surface albedo records. In the summer of 2019, Greenland experienced another extreme warm event, with approximately 90% of the ice sheet’s surface melting. On August 14, 2021, the highest point of the Greenland ice sheet recorded rainfall for the first time in recorded history, with temperatures above freezing persisting for about 9 hours, causing extreme melting on the surface. This event resulted in the second-largest melt since satellite observations began, with glacier runoff reaching its largest volume since 2006 by late August. In July 2022, the Arctic experienced another rare heatwave, with temperatures reaching as high as 32.5°C, accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and resulting in a daily melt rate of up to 6 billion tons. Simultaneously, heatwaves have swept the globe, with Europe, the Americas, and several Asian countries experiencing prolonged periods of high temperatures.

Situated within the Arctic Circle, Greenland has seen its rate of warming exceed the global average by four times in recent years, earning this phenomenon the title of the “Arctic Amplification Effect,” and making it one of the fastest-warming regions globally. Additionally, the increasing prevalence of rainfall over snowfall in Greenland is contributing to ice sheet surface melting, contrary to snowfall, which promotes ice sheet accumulation. Based on observational data and numerical model studies of Greenland, extreme melting events on the Greenland ice sheet’s surface have become increasingly frequent and intense over the past 60 years, especially since 1990, with the most significant increase occurring in southwestern Greenland.

China’s contribution

The harsh conditions of the polar regions and the scarcity of data make obtaining firsthand observational data essential for polar scientific research. Since 1985, the China Meteorological Administration has continuously participated in various polar scientific expeditions, establishing over 25 observation stations in data-scarce regions, ranking second globally in quantity. Among them, the Great Wall station, Zhongshan station, Taishan station, Kunlun station, and Zhongshan ozone hole observation station in Antarctica have become national basic operational stations, playing a significant role in the “Global Observing” strategy of the China Meteorological Administration and contributing significantly to the establishment of the World Meteorological Organization’s Antarctic Regional Climate Centre. Additionally, the China Meteorological Administration has actively conducted comprehensive atmospheric observations in Antarctica and scientific expeditions to the interior of Antarctica, successfully installing unmanned stations in extremely harsh environments and deploying a self-developed unmanned atmospheric environment observation system at the Taishan station.

The unique environment of Antarctica presents significant challenges for our meteorological observation equipment. Consequently, generations of scientists at the China Meteorological Administration have been dedicated to the research and development of monitoring and detection technologies for extreme environments. For instance, the independently developed ultra-low-temperature observation system has enabled continuous and stable observations under extreme conditions such as the low temperatures and high winds found in Antarctica.

Furthermore, the China Meteorological Administration is committed to the development of polar data products. Based on firsthand observational data obtained independently, we have conducted data quality control and developed products such as the PANDA automatic meteorological station observation network near-surface meteorological element products, Dome A region temperature remote sensing products, radiation remote sensing products at the Great Wall station in Antarctica, and extreme index products in Antarctica.

Additionally, the China Meteorological Administration has long been engaged in research on extreme events in Antarctica. For example, in 2019, we were the first to conduct research on extreme climate events in Antarctica internationally, and following the occurrence of the explosive warming event in Antarctica in 2022, we promptly conducted research on the process and mechanisms of this extreme event.

International cooperation

Currently, a total of 31 countries and one international organization have established 77 scientific research stations in Antarctica. At present, China’s fifth Antarctic research station, the Qilian Station, has been completed and is operational. This illustrates that Antarctica is an important site for global scientific cooperation and competition, where scientists from various countries conduct their respective scientific research covering a wide range of areas, including meteorological observation, ocean observation, ecological environment, mineral resources, marine biology, astronomy, and biodiversity. To my knowledge, cooperation between Chinese and foreign researchers in Antarctica includes data sharing, joint scientific experiments, and collaborative research on Antarctic ice sheet changes, Antarctic climate change mechanisms, and Antarctic carbon reservoirs through joint projects.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) launched the 8-year Antarctic Integrated Cooperation and Exploration Program (Ant-ICON) in 2021, proposing three major themes, including the impact of predicting climate change on critical points in various Antarctic systems and associated risks. The program aims to comprehensively understand Antarctica’s role in the Earth system and the global impact of climate change on Antarctica through scientific research and international cooperation. This presents new opportunities and challenges for scientific research in Antarctica. Compared with polar powers such as the United States, Russia, and Australia, China’s level of polar scientific and technological innovation still lags behind. Therefore, there is a long way to go in strengthening top-level design and planning for polar science and enhancing the polar science research capabilities.

Wei Ting is a research fellow from the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences.

Edited by WENG RONG