Warming in Antarctica

While the Arctic has consistently warmed as global climate changes, the impacts in the Antarctic are more complex. 

Temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula

The Antarctic Peninsula, the part of Antarctica furthest from the South Pole, has been warming rapidly, five times faster than the global average.  Between 1950 and 2000, the Antarctic Peninsula warmed 2.8°C (5.0°F). That's more warming than anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere. Since 2000, other changes such as a stronger jet stream and winds have caused a dip in temperatures, particularly during the summer. Overall warmer temperatures along the peninsula are increasing ice melt and have caused several ice shelves to break apart.

Collapsing Ice Shelves

Between 1992 and 2017, Antarctica lost more than three trillion tons of ice, most of which came from the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. Some of the most dramatic impacts of warming are collapsing ice shelves in West Antarctica, which are caused by warming. The animation at the left shows the historic breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf.  Ice shelves are like bookends that support ice sheets and glaciers, helping them stay on land. When an ice shelf collapses into the ocean, the glaciers that it held in place begin to slide into the sea at an accelerated rate. Scientists are finding that Antarctic glaciers move faster towards the Southern Ocean once an ice shelf is gone. 

Collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica between Jan 31 and April 13, 2002.

Collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica between Jan 31 and April 13, 2002.

NASA Earth Observatory


Warming of the Southern Ocean

The waters of the Southern Ocean are also warming. Warmer ocean water not only speeds the melting of ice shelves, but also has an impact on the sensitive marine ecosystem of the Southern Ocean. Antarctic krill, an important animal the start of the Southern Ocean food chain, are projected to lose up to 80 percent of their habitat by 2100 because of warming waters and melting sea ice.

Loss of Penguin Habitat

Areas of the Antarctic Peninsula that were once lively Adélie penguin colonies are now abandoned because of less winter sea ice. The remains of their simple rock nests litter the landscape. Many of these penguins have moved south to colder areas. Scientists are concerned that gentoo penguins, who live in isolated colonies and do not typically swim far from home, might not be able to relocate as easily as other penguin species as climate change makes their current habitat unsuitable. Emperor penguins are also affected because the sea ice they depend upon for breeding is melting. 

Predicting Change to the Antarctic Continent

Unlike the rapidly warming Antarctic Peninsula, patterns of temperature change in the interior of the Antarctic continent are less certain.  Scientists use advanced models, such as the Community Earth Systems Model (CESM), as well as observational studies, to advance our understanding of Antarctic systems. The massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) thick at its highest point, was previously thought to be too large to be affected by changes in climate, however recent studies show that the ice sheet does, in fact, seem to respond to shifts in temperature. Scientists predict that continuing to put greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will result in changes to East Antarctica that are similar to what is happening in the Arctic and West Antarctica, and warn that melting Antarctic ice could cause rapid sea level rise.


Map of Antarctica showing ice shelves

Ice shelves in West Antarctica and along the Antarctic Peninsula, such as the Larson B Ice Shelf and the Wilkins Ice Shelf, are collapsing due to climate warming. As floating ice shelves along the edges of the continental ice sheet collapse, the ice sheet on the continent becomes unstable.