At the South Pole, considered the coldest point on Earth, temperatures are rising rapidly.
So fast, in fact, that Dr. Kyle Clem and other climate researchers began to worry and wonder if human-driven climate change was playing a bigger role than expected in Antarctica.
Reuters agency reports that temperature data shows the desolate region has warmed at three times the rate of global warming in the past three decades, through 2018, the hottest year on record at the South Pole, researchers report in a published study. in Nature Climate Change.
When looking at data from 20 weather stations in Antarctica, the South Pole warming rate was seven times higher than the continent's overall average.
"The South Pole seemed to be isolated from what was happening in the rest of the world," said Dr. Clem, who has focused his research at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand on a better understanding of the Antarctic climate, adding: "But suddenly, it intensifies with rapid warming, one of the strongest on the planet ”.
Dr. Clem and his colleagues wanted to explain why the frozen continent began to warm rapidly after a cooling period during the 1970s and 1980s: was it natural variability? Or was it part of the broader trend of global warming caused by human industrial activity? As reported by Reuters, the answer is both.
The warming of the South Pole is partly related to the natural increase in temperatures in the tropical western Pacific that is driven south by cyclones in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea, off the Antarctic Peninsula.
However, that pattern, which is believed to be part of a natural process spanning several decades, explained only part of the warming trend.
The rest, the researchers said, was due to human-induced climate change.
"The end result is a massive warm-up," Dr. Clem said, although he acknowledged that it is difficult to determine exactly how much each factor played.
With temperature records for the South Pole dating back only 60 years, the region's climate is poorly understood.
Scientists have known that Pacific weather systems can influence West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, where rising air and water temperatures are already causing ice to melt.
The researchers are closely watching the continent amid concerns that the loss of ice will lead to higher sea levels around the world.
What happens closer to the Antarctic shores has more influence on this thaw.
However, this new "significant" finding that the world's southernmost point is also vulnerable to warming came as a surprise to Dr. Alexandra Isern, chief of Antarctic studies at the US National Science Foundation.
"An area of the planet that we felt was very isolated is actually not as isolated as we thought," Dr. Isern said.
Still, the South Pole is not in danger of melting yet
"These temperature swings are pretty amazing, but it's still pretty cold," said climate scientist Professor Julienne Stroeve, based in Manitoba, Canada, while working for the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
So far, the temperature changes have not been significant enough "to translate into a loss of mass" in the ice in the interior of Antarctica, he said.
Temperatures at the South Pole, which sits on an icy plateau 2.4 kilometers above sea level, generally range from minus 50 to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
However, the average temperature rose 1.8 ° C for 30 years through 2018, the study found.
Globally, temperatures increased by about 0.5 to 0.6 ° C during that time.
The new study shows that Antarctica is "waking up" to climate change, Professor Stroeve warned. "That, to me, is alarming," he said.