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Antarctica broke two temperature records in a week

“We have never seen anything like this.”

View of the Argentinian Esperanza military base from the Brazilian Navy’s Oceanographic Ship Ary Rongel in Antarctica on March 5, 2014.
Argentina’s Esperanza base in Antarctica reported a record high temperature this week.
Vanderlei Almeida/AFP via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Antarctic region has set another stunningly high temperature record: 69.35 degrees Fahrenheit (20.75°C).

Brazilian scientists detected the balmy temperature on February 9 on Seymour Island, just off the tip of the Trinity Peninsula, the section of Antarctica closest to South America, first reported by The Guardian.

“We are seeing the warming trend in many of the sites we are monitoring, but we have never seen anything like this,” said Carlos Schaefer, a Brazilian government scientist who studies the Antarctic, told The Guardian.

The new record came less than two days after a temperature of 64.9 degrees F (18.3°C) was recorded on the continent — which broke the previous record set in 2015.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that Esperanza, Argentina’s research base on the Trinity Peninsula, detected the previous balmy temperature spike on February 7. The record prior to that, 63.5 degrees, in 2015.

“The record appears to be likely associated (in the short term) with what we call a regional ‘foehn’ event over the area: a rapid warming of air coming down a slope/mountain,” said Randall Cerveny, WMO’s weather and climate extremes rapporteur, in a statement.

Shortly after the heat spike, the European Space Agency reported that a 120 square mile chunk of ice had broken off the the Pine Island Glacier, one of the continent’s most endangered glaciers.

“Pine Island glacier, like its neighbouring Thwaites Glacier, has been dramatically losing ice over the last 25 years,” according to the WMO.

It’s currently summer in the southern hemisphere, and even icy Antarctica starts to warm up as it receives uninterrupted sunlight through the season. However, temperatures usually don’t get much higher than 50 degrees.

On this rapidly warming planet of ours, the polar regions are heating up faster than the rest. Earth has warmed up by just over 1.8 degrees on average since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when humans began spewing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. But the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by 5.4 degrees in just the last 50 years.

That rising heat is particularly worrying because it’s fueling loss in the world’s largest reservoir of ice: the Antarctic ice sheets. If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt, it would raise global sea levels by 190 feet. It’s hard to know exactly how much Antarctica’s ice is contributing to global sea-level rise right now, but several estimates show that this ice could add upward of 16 inches of sea-level rise by the end of the century based on current rates.

The latest science also shows an acceleration in ice melt. Between 1979 and 2017, the annual rate of ice loss increased sixfold. This cold freshwater flowing into the ocean in turn is influencing weather patterns around the world in ways that scientists are still trying to understand.

Last month, 50-year-old climate activist Lewis Pugh swam in a river formed beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet to highlight the impacts of warming.

The opposite end of the world is also warming rapidly. In 2018, the Arctic experienced its heat wave in winter for the third year in a row. Together, these events show that a lot more heat and change are in store for the coolest parts of the world.