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A comparison is made of the Holocene records obtained from water isotope measurements along 11 ice cores from coastal and central sites in east Antarctica (Vostok, Dome B, Plateau Remote, Komsomolskaia, Dome C, Taylor Dome, Dominion Range, D47, KM105, and Law Dome) and west Antarctica (Byrd), with temporal resolution from 20 to 50 yr. The long-term trends possibly reflect local ice sheet elevation fluctuations superimposed on common climatic fluctuations. All the records confirm the widespread Antarctic early Holocene optimum between 11,500 and 9000 yr; in the Ross Sea sector, a secondary optimum is identified between 7000 and 5000 yr, whereas all eastern Antarctic sites show a late optimum between 6000 and 3000 yr. Superimposed on the long time trend, all the records exhibit 9 aperiodic millennial-scale oscillations. Climatic optima show a reduced pacing between warm events (typically 800 yr), whereas cooler periods are associated with less-frequent warm events (pacing >1200 yr).
We present an update of the ‘key points’ from the Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment (ACCE) report that was published by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in 2009. We summarise subsequent advances in knowledge concerning how the climates of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean have changed in the past, how they might change in the future, and examine the associated impacts on the marine and terrestrial biota. We also incorporate relevant material presented by SCAR to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, and make use of emerging results that will form part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.
Where does the strange attraction to the polar regions lie, so powerful, so gripping that on one's return from them one forgets all the weariness of body and soul and dreams only of going back? Where does the incredible charm of these unattended and terrific regions lie?
Jean-Baptiste Charcot, 1908
For many people the word Antarctica is synonymous with cold and with more ice than can be imagined. The Antarctic continent has been continuously covered by a thick layer of ice for the past 15 million years, leaving less than 0.5% of the underlying rock visible. This enormous mass of ice, formed by the progressive accumulation of snowfall, slowly flows back to the ocean. Antarctica is a major actor in our global climate system as well as being a most precious archive of the history of climate evolution over the last 1 million years.
Antarctic ice in the global water cycle
For many millions of years, Antarctica has been the largest reservoir of continental ice on earth. The dimensions of this ‘sleeping giant’ are astonishing. The area permanently covered by continental snow and ice is greater than 13 million km², 30% more than all of Europe. Around Antarctica, the cold Austral Ocean enhances the ice area every winter as the frozen surface waters form sea ice. These ice surfaces reflect sunshine back into space rather than absorbing it, helping to maintain extremely cold conditions at the high southern latitudes.
In this chapter, we describe and explain some of the patterns observed in the behaviour of Earth’s climate system. We explain some of the causes of the climate’s natural variability, setting contemporary climate change in its longer-term context. We describe the various lines of evidence about climate forcing and the feedbacks that determine the responses to perturbations, and the way in which reconstructions of past climates can be used in combination with models and contemporary observations of change.
Human activity is creating a major perturbation to the Earth, directly affecting the composition of the atmosphere, and the nature of the land surface . These direct effects are expected in turn to cause impacts on numerous aspects of the Earth: regional climates , the distribution of ice and vegetation types, and perhaps the circulation of the oceans. Numerous interactions within the Earth system must be understood to enable prediction of the effects of the imposed changes. Models used for prediction are underpinned by a physical understanding of the climate. Aspects of these models are generally tuned to the Earth we experience today, but it is their representation of Earth’s response to change that really interests us.
By observing the Earth, both directly in the present and indirectly in the past, we learn about processes and feedbacks that models need to represent; and we can test whether the real Earth has responded to perturbations with the speed and magnitude that our models display. The ultimate goal is to use such observations to test models quantitatively, and to calibrate some of their less-constrained parameters. This goal cannot be fully realized unless we have knowledge of both the perturbation and the spatial pattern and magnitude of the response. This chapter concentrates on observations of how the Earth’s climate has responded to perturbations in the past.
The seasonal deuterium excess signal of fresh snow samples from Neumayer station, coastal Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, was studied to investigate the relationship between deuterium excess and precipitation origin. An isotope model was combined with a trajectory model to determine the relative influence of different moisture sources on the mean annual course of the deuterium excess, focusing on the phase lag between δ18O and excess d. Whereas the annual course of δ18O always shows an austral summer maximum, which clearly depends on local temperature and the annual course of moisture source-area parameters, the deuterium excess of the fresh snow samples shows maximum values already in spring. There can be many different reasons for the time lag between δ18O and deuterium excess in an ice core, including post-depositional processes and changes in the moisture source of precipitation. The use of fresh snow samples enabled us to exclude post-depositional processes and study solely the influence of precipitation origin. Changes in the moisture source connected to systematic changes in the general atmospheric circulation can have a strong influence on the phase lag between deuterium excess and δ18O, which has to be taken into account for climatic interpretation of stable-isotope profiles from ice cores.
High-resolution records of isotope composition (δD) and accumulation of snow have been obtained from 10–12m deep snow pits dug in the vicinity of Vostok station during the 1979/80 and 1999/2000 Antarctic field seasons. We employ meteorological, balloon-sounding and snow-stake data to interpret the isotope record in terms of past temperature changes. Our reconstruction suggests that snow accumulation rate and the near-surface air temperature at Vostok have varied during the past 200 years between 15 and 30 kg m–2 a–1, and between –56 and –55˚C, respectively, with a slight general tendency to increase from the past to the present. Both parameters reveal a 50 year periodicity that correlates with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation index, implying a climatic teleconnection between central Antarctica and the tropical Pacific.
We consider a specific accumulation event that occurred in January 2002 in western Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. Snow samples were obtained a few days after accumulation. We combine meteorological analyses and isotopic modelling to describe the isotopic composition of moisture during transport. Backward trajectories were calculated, based on European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts operational archive data so that the history of the air parcels transporting water vapour to the accumulation site could be reconstructed. This trajectory study showed that the air masses were not (super)saturated along most of the transport path, which is in contrast with assumptions in Lagrangian fractionation models and probably true for most precipitation events in Antarctica. The modelled fractionation along the trajectories was too limited to explain the measured isotopic content of the snow. It is shown that the observed isotopic composition of precipitation resulted from fractionation of initially more depleted water. This lower initial isotopic composition of water vapour might result from atmospheric mixing with more depleted air along the trajectory or from earlier condensation cycles, not captured by the trajectories. This is in accordance with isotope fields resulting from general circulation models, indicating a gradient in isotopic composition from the Equator to Antarctica.
Continuous, detailed isotope (δD and δ18O) profiles were obtained from eight snow pits dug in the vicinity of Vostok station, Antarctica, during the period 1984– 2000. In addition, snow samples taken along the 1km long accumulation-stake profile were measured to determine spatial variability in isotope composition of recent snow. the stacked δD time series spanning the last 55 years shows only weak correlation with the mean annual air temperature recorded at Vostok station. Significant oscillations of both snow accumulation and snow isotope composition with the periods 2.5, 5, 20 and, possibly, ~102 years observed at single points are interpreted in terms of drift of snow-accumulation waves of various scales on the surface of the ice sheet.
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