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Record warming at the South Pole during the past three decades

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 18 May 2021

This article has been updated


Over the last three decades, the South Pole has experienced a record-high statistically significant warming of 0.61 ± 0.34 °C per decade, more than three times the global average. Here, we use an ensemble of climate model experiments to show this recent warming lies within the upper bounds of the simulated range of natural variability. The warming resulted from a strong cyclonic anomaly in the Weddell Sea caused by increasing sea surface temperatures in the western tropical Pacific. This circulation, coupled with a positive polarity of the Southern Annular Mode, advected warm and moist air from the South Atlantic into the Antarctic interior. These results underscore the intimate linkage of interior Antarctic climate to tropical variability. Further, this study shows that atmospheric internal variability can induce extreme regional climate change over the Antarctic interior, which has masked any anthropogenic warming signal there during the twenty-first century.

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Fig. 1: Temperature and pressure changes at the South Pole during the modern instrumental record.
Fig. 2: Circulation changes at the South Pole and the southern polar region.
Fig. 3: Recent South Pole climatic changes relative to CMIP5 ensemble.
Fig. 4: Connection to tropical Pacific variability.
Fig. 5: Coupling of IPO with positive SAM.

Data availability

The station temperature, wind and radiosonde data are available online at ERA5 data are available online at ERSSTv.5 and OLR data are available online at The CMIP5 data are available online at Output from the CESM experiments are available from the authors upon request.

Code availability

All code used to perform the calculations can be accessed at

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R.L.F. is grateful for funding from the National Science Foundation under grant no. US NSF PLR-1744998. J.T. and G.J.M. were supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council through the British Antarctic Survey research programme Polar Science for Planet Earth. We thank the Rutgers Office of Advanced Research Computing and G. Collier for assistance with the CESM simulations. We thank A. Orr and A. Moody for valuable discussion during this study. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



K.R.C. and R.L.F. conceived the study. K.R.C. led the writing of the manuscript, carried out the South Pole SAT and ERA5 circulation analysis, analysed the CMIP5 data and performed the CESM experiments. R.L.F. investigated changes in upper-air temperature and pressure from South Pole radiosonde observations and generated Fig. 1. J.T. investigated changes in South Pole winds using South Pole wind observations and generated Fig. 2c–e. G.J.M. investigated IPO/SAM influence on South Pole temperatures and generated Fig. 5. K.R.C. generated all other figures. All authors analysed the results and assisted in writing and editing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kyle R. Clem.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Sharon Stammerjohn, Xiaojun Yuan and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Antarctic SAT trends during 1989–2018.

Observed 1989–2018 annual-mean SAT trends (°C 30-year−1) from 20 Antarctic staffed and automated weather stations (solid line). The mean trend for all 20 stations is 0.26 °C 30-year−1 and is denoted by the dashed line. The Amundsen–Scott warming trend of 1.83 °C 30-year−1 is denoted by an open red circle.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Simulated anthropogenic forcing of South Pole surface air temperature in CMIP5 models.

Running 30-year South Pole annual-mean (a) SAT and (b) normalized SAT trends for the merged historical (1850–2005) and RCP8.5 (2006–2018) ensemble mean (black line) compared to the observed Amundsen–Scott SAT running 30-year trends (red line). The ensemble mean SAT trend for 1989–2018 is 0.98 °C 30-year−1 (54% of the observed 1.83 °C 30-year-1) and the ensemble mean normalized SAT trend is 0.92 standard deviations 30-year-1 (39% of the observed 2.39 standard deviations 30-year-1).

Extended Data Fig. 3 South Pole relationship with tropical sea surface temperatures.

The (a) correlation of annual-mean Amundsen–Scott SAT with ERSSTv5 SST over the period 1957–2018, and (b) the detrended time series of annual-mean Amundsen–Scott SAT and annual-mean SST in the western tropical Pacific region used for the sensitivity experiment (148–168°E, 8°N-12°S). The black contours in (a) show correlations significant at p<0.10. The detrended correlations of annual-mean Amundsen–Scott SAT and west Pacific SST and the statistical significance for the 1957–2018 and 1979–2018 periods are given at the bottom.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Tropical Pacific climate trends during 1989–2018.

The 1989–2018 annual-mean trends in (a) tropical SST (°C decade-1), (b) outgoing longwave radiation (W m-2 decade-1), and (c) ERA5 precipitation (mm day-1 decade−1). The black box in (a–c) denotes the region where the positive SST anomaly was placed for the sensitivity experiment. Black contours denote trends that are significant at p<0.10.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Simulated Antarctic circulation response to western tropical Pacific warming.

The annual and seasonal-mean Z500 (m) and 500 hPa wind (ms-1) anomalies (perturbed run 30-yr climatology minus control run 30-yr climatology) for the west Pacific SST heating anomaly experiment (Methods). Black contours denote Z500 anomalies significant at p<0.10, and only wind anomalies significant at p<0.10 are plotted.

Extended Data Figure 6 Simulated Antarctic surface air temperature response to western tropical Pacific warming.

As in Extended Data Fig. 5, except for SAT (°C).

Extended Data Figure 7 The influence of negative IPO and positive SAM coupling on Antarctic climate in CMIP5 models.

The (a) CMIP5 pre-industrial ensemble mean annual-mean 30-year SLP trend (hPa 30-year−1) for the lowest 30-year negative IPO trend period in each ensemble member. Only CMIP5 models that simulate a realistic negative IPO SST pattern (a positive SST trend in the western tropical Pacific and a negative SST trend in the southeastern tropical Pacific) were included (Methods). (b-c) The difference in annual-mean 30-year (b) SLP (hPa 30-year-1) and (c) SAT (°C 30-year−1) trend for CMIP5 pre-industrial models that had a negative IPO trend minus those that had a positive IPO trend during their respective 30-year period with a positive SAM trend equal to the observed 1989–2018 positive SAM trend (2.14 30-year−1).

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Clem, K.R., Fogt, R.L., Turner, J. et al. Record warming at the South Pole during the past three decades. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 762–770 (2020).

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