An unprecedented leap of 38.5C in the coldest place on Earth is a harbinger of a disaster for humans and the local ecosystem

On 18 March, 2022, scientists at the Concordia research station on the east Antarctic plateau documented a remarkable event. They recorded the largest jump in temperature ever measured at a meteorological centre on Earth. According to their instruments, the region that day experienced a rise of 38.5C above its seasonal average: a world record.

This startling leap – in the coldest place on the planet – left polar researchers struggling for words to describe it. “It is simply mind-boggling,” said Prof Michael Meredith, science leader at the British Antarctic Survey. “In sub-zero temperatures such a massive leap is tolerable but if we had a 40C rise in the UK now that would take temperatures for a spring day to over 50C – and that would be deadly for the population.”

This amazement was shared by glaciologist Prof Martin Siegert, of the University of Exeter. “No one in our community thought that anything like this could ever happen. It is extraordinary and a real concern,” he told the Observer. “We are now having to wrestle with something that is completely unprecedented.”

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    Poleward winds, which previously made few inroads into the atmosphere above Antarctica, are now carrying more and more warm, moist air from lower latitudes – including Australia – deep into the continent, say scientists, and these have been blamed for the dramatic polar “heatwave” that hit Concordia.

    These events have raised fears that the Antarctic, once thought to be too cold to experience the early impacts of global warming, is now succumbing dramatically and rapidly to the swelling levels of greenhouse gases that humans continue to pump into the atmosphere.

    “Essentially, it is a vicious circle of warming oceans and melting of sea ice, though the root cause is humanity and its continuing burning of fossil fuels and its production of greenhouse gases,” said Meredith.

    Last year the species, which is found only in Antarctica, suffered a catastrophic breeding failure because the platforms of sea ice on which they are born started to break up long before the young penguins could grow waterproof feathers.

    Researchers say that the discovery of the loss of emperor penguins suggests that more than 90% of colonies will be wiped out by the end of the century, if global warming trends continue at their current disastrous rate.

    “Nevertheless, there is a good case for arguing that if countries are knowingly polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and Antarctica is being affected as a consequence, then the treaty protocol is being breached by its signatories and their behaviour could be challenged on legal and political grounds.


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