If you lived in the many parts of the United States and Europe last week and were in need of a reprieve from persistent, frigid temperatures, you would have found relief in the most unlikely of places.
Part of Antarctica hit a record high of 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit last Tuesday, the hottest ever reported, according to the climate monitor OGIMET.
By comparison, Washington DC was 46 degrees, New York City reached 45 degrees, and the temperature in London topped 50 degrees.
While scientists warn not to draw conclusions from a single weather event, the temps hue closely to more alarming, long-term trends in the southern continent.
Antarctica’s floating ice shelves have recently decreased by as much as 18 percent in some spots over the last 18 years, says a new study, published in the journal Science. As the oceans have warmed, they’ve spurred more of the frozen mass to become water, researcher Fernando Paolo told VICE News.
“There is evidence that the amount of warm ocean water reaching the ice shelves has increased, so more warm water under these is causing the melt,” Paolo, a PhD candidate with UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, told VICE News. “And there is a lag in the response time of the environment. So, even if conditions changed now, 20 years from now the environment will still be reacting this way.”
And the findings indicate that sea levels are certain to continue rising, Doug Martinson, a professor with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, told VICE News.
“You could stop global warming tomorrow but that doesn’t matter from this perspective because there’s already so much heat stored in the ocean, it’ll keep coming up and melting the ice,” Martinson, who was not involved in Paolo’s study, told VICE News.
The study, which advanced previous research on Antarctica’s ice mass, compiled 18 years of continuous data starting in 1994, and found that the bulk of melt occurred between 2003 and 2012, Paolo noted.
“We could see there was an acceleration of loss,” Paolo said of the ice mass. “Another important thing we were able to see was that some of the ice shelves have a large fluctuation of gain and loss in volume over time. So, if you look at a shorter period, you won’t see the trend.”
Air temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula – where the record high was documented last week – have been found to further affect ice melt there, Paolo said, so such steamy weather could certainly cause more reason for concern.
“On the Antarctic Peninsula we have a weather station so we know the weather is responsible for changes,” Paolo said.
Still, one or two extremely hot days cannot be directly attributed to global warming, said Hugh Ducklow, also a professor with Lamont-Doherty. He warned of drawing too many conclusions from the 63.5-degree weather.
“I don’t believe that you can attribute any isolated event to global warming. This is just like saying the next 100-degree day or next hurricane in NYC is due to global warming,” Ducklow told VICE News. “A warmer climate could increase the likelihood of occurrence of hot days, but the individual events are not ’caused’ by global warming.”
And regardless of the air temperature, the ocean’s conditions actually have a far stronger impact on the melting ice and rising sea levels, Martinson explained.
“The heat contained in water is thousands of times stronger than the heat of the atmosphere,” Martinson said of the sea’s ability to dissolve Antarctic ice.
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“Heat is absorbed in the ocean like a sponge, and a good amount of that heat is coming up. Where it comes up it melts underside of the ice shelves,” Martinson said, warning that the phenomenon could push the sea level dangerously high. “I don’t like to say ‘doomsday scenario’ but this is sort of pointing toward it.”