Polar heatwaves must ‘wake people up’ to urgency of climate crisis, scientists say

Extreme heat in both the Arctic and Antarctic “could have devastating impacts” on the regions and must serve as a wake-up call to the urgency of the climate crisis, scientists have said.

One leading researcher said the unprecedented polar heatwaves combined with growing interest in fossil fuel extraction amid Russia’s war in Ukraine must “wake people up” the rapidly closing window to tackle global warming.

Extreme heat events are happening at both of Earth’s poles at the same time, with parts of Antarctica more than 40C warmer than average and areas of the Arctic more than 30C hotter than usual.

“If these extreme temperatures don’t wake people up about this urgency, at the same time as war threatens to encourage more fossil fuel extraction and use, I don’t know what will,” Dr Lisa Schipper, co-ordinating lead chapter author for the IPCC’s sixth assessment report and Oxford Environmental Research Fellow.

The IPCC’s latest report, released in February, warned half of the global population was highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis and the opportunity to secure a “liveable” future for all was fast disappearing.

Prof Martin Siegert, co-director of Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, said repeats of the polar heatwaves first recorded last week could devastate both the Arctic and Antarctic.

He said: “The magnitude of the temperatures is also staggering in both poles. While the events are ‘weather’, if under climate change the polar regions experience more events like this it could have devastating impacts, especially in coastal regions in Antarctica where the warmth will be felt the greatest, and on ice shelves where melting would occur.

“In the Arctic, the impacts on sea ice and permafrost, and the climate feedbacks that result are also worth noting. These are unusual events, but if they become regular occurrences they would impact both regions considerably.”

University of Wisconsin meteorologist Matthew Lazzara, who monitors temperatures at East Antarctica’s Dome C-ii, logged -10C on Friday, when the normal temperature is -43C.

“That’s a temperature that you should see in January, not March. January is summer there. That’s dramatic,” he said.

Prof Siegert said: “Polar warmth like this will not be generated in the polar regions. It will come from low/mid-latitudes, and be transported north (Arctic) and south (Antarctic).

“While this process is not unusual in the Arctic, it is very (unusual) in the Antarctic, where the continent is effectively isolated climatically by the southern ocean and the high elevation of the ice sheet that prevents warm weather systems from penetrating.”

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