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Winter warming in West Antarctica caused by central tropical Pacific warming

Abstract

The Pacific sector of Antarctica, including both the Antarctic Peninsula and continental West Antarctica, has experienced substantial warming in the past 30 years. An increase in the circumpolar westerlies, owing in part to the decline in stratospheric ozone concentrations since the late 1970s, may account for warming trends in the peninsula region in austral summer and autumn. The more widespread warming in continental West Antarctica (Ellsworth Land and Marie Byrd Land) occurs primarily in austral winter and spring, and remains unexplained. Here we use observations of Antarctic surface temperature and global sea surface temperature, and atmospheric circulation data to show that recent warming in continental West Antarctica is linked to sea surface temperature changes in the tropical Pacific. Over the past 30 years, anomalous sea surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific have generated an atmospheric Rossby wave response that influences atmospheric circulation over the Amundsen Sea, causing increased advection of warm air to the Antarctic continent. General circulation model experiments show that the central tropical Pacific is a critical region for producing the observed high latitude response. We conclude that, by affecting the atmospheric circulation at high southern latitudes, increasing tropical sea surface temperatures may account for West Antarctic warming through most of the twentieth century.

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Figure 1: Antarctic temperature and Southern Hemisphere circulation changes in austral winter.
Figure 2: Principal modes of covarying tropical sea surface temperature and Southern Hemisphere circulation in austral winter.
Figure 3: Relationship between Southern Hemisphere circulation and West Antarctic climate in austral winter.
Figure 4: Response of ECHAM4.6 atmospheric model to anomalous warm central Pacific sea surface temperature in austral winter.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation, grant numbers OPP-0837988 and 0963924. We thank G. Hoffman for providing the code for ECHAM4.6, and P. Hezel, A. Jenkins, G. H. Roe, D. P. Schneider and S. Schoenemann for fruitful comments.

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Q.D. did the calculations, implemented the general circulation model experiments, created the figures, and led the writing of the paper. All authors contributed to the experimental design and writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Eric J. Steig.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ding, Q., Steig, E., Battisti, D. et al. Winter warming in West Antarctica caused by central tropical Pacific warming. Nature Geosci 4, 398–403 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1129

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