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Sunday, 13 January, 2002, 23:26 GMT
Animals retreat as Antarctic cools
Person with sledge on ice   BBC
The researchers found a net cooling
Alex Kirby

US scientists say they have established that much of Antarctica is cooling.

This is at odds with earlier reports which suggested a slight recent warming on the continent.

The researchers say the cooling is causing soil invertebrates to decline by more than 10% annually.

They also found that lake productivity is falling, with organisms incorporating significantly less carbon dioxide (CO2) into organic carbon compounds.

They say their findings, published online in the science journal Nature, challenge models of climate and ecosystem change.

They write: "The average air temperature at the Earth's surface has increased by 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade during the 20th Century, and by 0.19 degrees C per decade from 1979 to 1998."

Seasonal swings

"Climate models generally predict amplified warming in polar regions, as observed in Antarctica's peninsula region over the second half of the century.

"Although previous reports suggest slight recent continental warming, our spatial analysis of Antarctic meteorological data demonstrates a net cooling on the continent between 1966 and 2000, particularly during summer and autumn."

Antarctic snow and rock   BBC
The Dry Valleys are the largest ice-free area
Their study concentrated on the McMurdo dry valleys, the largest ice-free area on the continent. It is a cold desert, with the largest animals soil invertebrates.

Of these the most widely distributed are soil nematodes, a sort of worm.

The team, led by Dr Peter Doran of the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago, found that the valleys had cooled by 0.7 degrees C per decade between 1986 and 2000, with pronounced summer and autumn trends.

They say: "We believe that climate cooling has significantly impacted ecosystem properties in the valleys."

They believe the 9% fall in primary production which they recorded in one of the valley lakes could produce a system so depleted in stored organic carbon that it might act as a source of CO2.

The researchers note: "Although other studies have cited a trend of continental warming in Antarctica, the trends are sensitive to the period analysed and to the distribution of [weather] stations.

Wider impact expected

"The large-scale cooling reported here results from an approach designed to avoid over-weighting of station-dense regions (for example, the peninsula) in the evaluation of overall trends.

"In the dry valleys, the cooling trend is significantly correlated with decreased winds and increased clear-sky conditions.

Penguin and chick   BBC
There will be "a cascade of ecological consequences"
"We propose that prolonged summer cooling will diminish aquatic and soil biological assemblages throughout the valleys, and possibly in other terrestrial Antarctic ecosystems.

"Summer temperatures are the critical driver of Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems, and our data are the first, to our knowledge, to highlight the cascade of ecological consequences that result from the recent summer cooling."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the Antarctic peninsula is "very vulnerable to projected climate change and its impacts".

Hard to predict

It adds: "The interior of Antarctica is less vulnerable, because the temperature changes envisaged over the next century are likely to have little impact and very few people are involved.

"However, there are considerable uncertainties about the mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheets and the future behaviour of the West Antarctic ice sheet (which has a low probability of disintegration over the next century).

"Changes in either could affect sea level and southern hemisphere climates."

See also:

05 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Ice turns back Shackleton ship
27 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Low probability of ice collapse
26 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Antarctica's climate clues
18 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Warmth puts penguins under pressure
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