Antarctica Was Once As Warm As California

Antarctica Was Once As Warm As California"Warming in these regions has significant consequences for climate well beyond the high latitudes due to ocean circulation and melting of polar ice that leads to sea level rise." (Photo Credit: Christopher Michel/Flickr)

Parts of ancient Antarctica were as toasty as today’s California coast, say scientists who used a new method to measure past temperatures.

The study focused on Antarctica during the Eocene epoch, 40 to 50 million years ago, a period with high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and consequently a greenhouse climate.

Today, Antarctica is, year-round, one of the coldest places on Earth, and the continent’s interior is the coldest place, with annual average land temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the potential for increased warmth at Earth’s poles and the associated risk of melting polar ice and rising sea levels, the researchers says.


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But it wasn’t always that way, and the new measurements can help improve climate models used for predicting future climate, according to co-author Hagit Affek associate professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University.

“Quantifying past temperatures helps us understand the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases, and especially the amplification of global warming in polar regions,” Affek says.

The paper’s lead author, Peter M.J. Douglas, performed the research as a graduate student in Affek’s Yale laboratory. He is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. The research team included paleontologists, geochemists, and a climate physicist.

Average Temperatures Were Similar to California and Florida Today

By measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells, the scientists found that temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 17 degrees Celsius (63F) during the Eocene, with an average of 14 degrees Celsius (57F)—similar to the average annual temperature off the coast of California today.

Eocene temperatures in parts of the southern Pacific Ocean measured 22 degrees Centigrade (or about 72F), researchers says—similar to seawater temperatures near Florida today.

Today the average annual South Pacific sea temperature near Antarctica is about 0 degrees Celsius.

These ancient ocean temperatures were not uniformly distributed throughout the Antarctic ocean regions—they were higher on the South Pacific side of Antarctica—and researchers say this finding suggests that ocean currents led to a temperature difference.

Global Warming is Polar Warming

“By measuring past temperatures in different parts of Antarctica, this study gives us a clearer perspective of just how warm Antarctica was when the Earth’s atmosphere contained much more CO2 than it does today,” says Douglas.

“We now know that it was warm across the continent, but also that some parts were considerably warmer than others. This provides strong evidence that global warming is especially pronounced close to the Earth’s poles. Warming in these regions has significant consequences for climate well beyond the high latitudes due to ocean circulation and melting of polar ice that leads to sea level rise.”

Fossil Shells

To determine the ancient temperatures, the scientists measured the abundance of two rare isotopes bound to each other in fossil bivalve shells collected by co-author Linda Ivany of Syracuse University at Seymour Island, a small island off the northeast side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The concentration of bonds between carbon-13 and oxygen-18 reflect the temperature in which the shells grew, the researchers says. They combined these results with other geo-thermometers and model simulations. The new measurement technique is called carbonate clumped isotope thermometry.

“We managed to combine data from a variety of geochemical techniques on past environmental conditions with climate model simulations to learn something new about how the Earth’s climate system works under conditions different from its current state,” Affek says. “This combined result provides a fuller picture than either approach could on its own.”

The National Science Foundation, Statoil, and the European Research Council supported the research.

Article Source: Yale University
Research: Original Study


About the Author

Eric Gershon, Senior Communications Officer, External Communications, Yale UniversityEric Gershon is Senior Communications Officer (in External Communications) at the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications. He writes news releases on science topics. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and received a master’s in journalism from Columbia.


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