Climate science

Have satellites overestimated Antarctic sea ice growth?

  • 22 Jul 2014, 15:30
  • Roz Pidcock

It's puzzling why Antarctic sea ice seems to be growing while earth's other icy expanses are shrinking as temperatures rise.

Now new research questions whether there has been much of a rise in Antarctic sea ice after all. The paper suggests the small but significant growth scientists thought had occurred since 1979 could be little more than a "spurious artifact" of how satellite data is interpreted.

But other polar scientists tell us the implications of the new findings" are very limited indeed" and they're confident Antarctic sea ice is still growing.

Bucking the trend

Scientists know ice is being lost from both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. They also know the amount of sea ice in the Arctic is rapidly decreasing.

But satellite data suggest the amount of sea ice around Antarctica has been growing since 1979. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year put the size of the increase at  1.5 per cent on average per decade.

For comparison, that's about a third of the rate of sea ice retreat in the Arctic. A  new paper just published in journal The Cryosphere explains the puzzle this poses for scientists:

"[T]here has been substantial interest in the trend in Antarctic sea ice extent … primarily because of the observed asymmetry between increasing ice extent in the Antarctic and rapidly diminishing ice extent in the Arctic, and the inability of current climate models to capture this."

The new paper raises an interesting point. It notes that the growth in Antarctic sea ice in the latest IPCC report is much bigger than suggested in the previous one in 2007. The authors say:

"[The 2007 report] reported the trend in Antarctic sea ice extent to be small and statistically indistinguishable from zero".


Slow surface warming since 1998 is “not exceptional”, say scientists

  • 21 Jul 2014, 19:30
  • Roz Pidcock

Scientists know greenhouse gases are causing the world to warm. But an interesting question is why warming at earth's surface speeds up and slows down.

new paper shows surface temperature "slowdowns" like we're experiencing now aren't unusual - and capturing the timing of natural ups and down in the climate is key to predicting them.

But as a  second paper explains, the planet as a whole has warmed up in the last decade even as surface temperature rise has been sluggish.

Model mismatch

Temperatures are rising due to long term greenhouse gas warming. But natural variability causes temperatures to go up and down from one year to the next.

Natural variability can at least partly explain slower surface warming in the last 15 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  concluded in its latest report. Recent evidence  points to changes in the  Pacific causing the deep oceans to absorb more heat.

But most climate models didn't predict the slowdown. And as a  new paper in Nature Climate Change explains, some parts of the media have argued that since models don't replicate recent temperatures, we shouldn't trust their predictions for future warming.

But the paper, lead by Australian climate scientist Dr James Risbey, finds that 15 years of temperatures rising slower than models predict "does not constitute evidence against the fidelity" of models in general. Let's take a closer look at why not.


Typhoon Haiyan, record-breaking CO2 levels, rising seas and more: five measures of the state of the climate in 2013

  • 18 Jul 2014, 17:00
  • Ros Donald

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels broke modern records last year - and 2013 was one of the warmest years on record according to four major datasets. Sea levels continue to rise, and the oceans are getting warmer. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's State of the Climate, 2013 is a reminder of the many changes the world is experiencing. 

The State of the Climate report, published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is a different beast to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) fifth assessment report. Both reports assemble multiple datasets to give a picture of the changes the planet is experiencing, but NOAA's annual climate checkup doesn't try to answer why certain events have occurred. Instead, it focuses on building a detailed picture year on year, chronicling the shifting state of the physical climate system. 

NOAA has also created a  summary that pulls out the report's most striking results. We've picked five measures that help form this picture along with NOAA's explanation of why they matter.