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South Pole posts most severe cold season on record, a surprise in a warming world

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/1/2021 Jason Samenow, Kasha Patel
The sun rises at the South Pole on Sept. 23, ending the long, dark winter. The photo was taken by South Pole Station Facility Engineer Jeff Keller. The sun rises at the South Pole on Sept. 23, ending the long, dark winter. The photo was taken by South Pole Station Facility Engineer Jeff Keller.

This story, first published Friday evening, was updated Saturday morning.

Amid a record hot summer in large parts of the Northern Hemisphere, beset by devastating fires, floods and hurricanes, Antarctica was mired in a deep, deep freeze. That’s typically the case during the southernmost continent’s winter months, but 2021 was different.

The chill was exceptional, even for the coldest location on the planet.

The average temperature at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station between April and September, a frigid minus-78 degrees (minus-61 Celsius), was the coldest on record, dating back to 1957. This was 4.5 degrees lower than the most recent 30-year average at this remote station, which is operated by United States Antarctic Program and administered by the National Science Foundation.

While impressive and unexpected, scientists characterized this record as a mere blip and curiosity as both Antarctica and the planet continue to rapidly warm amid escalating extreme weather.

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We first learned of this record through a tweet from Stefano Di Battista, who has published research on Antarctic temperatures. The legitimacy of Di Battista’s information was confirmed by Richard Cullather, a research scientist at NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, who provided the chart below.

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station experienced the coldest average temperature for April to September in 2021 on record. © Richard Cullather/British Antarctic Survey The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station experienced the coldest average temperature for April to September in 2021 on record.

The extreme cold over Antarctica helped push sea ice levels surrounding the continent to their fifth-highest level on record in August, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Matthew Lazzara, an expert on the meteorology of Antarctica and scientist at the University of Wisconsin, monitored the South Pole temperatures in recent months from his office in Madison with awe. In an interview, he said it was around minus-100 degrees on numerous occasions. Over the years, he’s traveled to Antarctica many times to support his research.

“At these temperatures, it is difficult to operate aircraft,” he wrote in an email. “[B]etween -50°C and -58°C you put the aircraft at risk with the hydraulics freezing up or fuel turning into a jelly.”

Once he visited the South Pole in late October. “I got to experience -50°C weather … with a wind chill beyond that. I was *thrilled* to be wearing my 75 lbs of Extreme Cold Weather gear to stay warm,” he joked.

Extraordinarily cold weather continues to grip the Antarctic Plateau. Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who monitors world weather extremes, tweeted that temperature at Russia’s Vostok Station sunk to minus-110.9 degrees (minus-79.4 Celsius) on Thursday, which was just one degree (0.6 Celsius) from the world’s lowest temperature on record during October.

The current temperatures are still some distance from the coldest ever observed on the continent. In July 1983, Vostok plummeted to minus-129 degrees (minus-89.6 Celsius). Satellites have detected temperatures as low as minus-144 degrees (minus-98 Celsius).

The planet’s most frigid region is even colder than scientists thought

The conditions over Antarctica are in stark contrast to much of the rest of the planet, which notched its fourth-hottest June through August on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Northern Hemisphere registered its second-hottest summer.

Behind the extreme cold

Scientists credited a very strong polar vortex, or a ring of strong winds in the stratosphere, surrounding Antarctica for the intensity of the cold.

The stratospheric polar vortex is a seasonal phenomenon. In the Southern Hemisphere, it forms in the fall, persists through the winter and weakens before reversing course in spring.

The strength of the vortex has connections to weather at the ground, said Krzysztof Wargan, a research scientist with NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. He said a strong vortex is associated with low surface temperatures.

Whether the vortex is strong or weak depends on a cycle known as Southern Annular Mode (SAM). Right now, the mode is in its positive phase and the vortex is intense.

“Basically, the winds in the polar stratosphere have been stronger than normal, which is associated with shifting the jet stream toward the pole,” Amy Butler, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA, wrote in a message. “This keeps the cold air locked up over much of Antarctica.”

Staff watch the long-waited sunlight at the rooftop of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Sept 23, 2021, as they now enter 6-month period of daylight. The photo was taken by Lisa Minelli-Endlich, sous chef at the South Pole station. © NOAA/Lisa Minelli-Endlich/NOAA/Lisa Minelli-Endlich Staff watch the long-waited sunlight at the rooftop of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Sept 23, 2021, as they now enter 6-month period of daylight. The photo was taken by Lisa Minelli-Endlich, sous chef at the South Pole station.

Butler wrote that the strong polar vortex not only makes it very cold over Antarctica but accelerates processes that lead to stratospheric ozone depletion, which in turn can strengthen the vortex even more. This year’s ozone hole over Antarctica is much bigger than average at around 24 million square kilometers, a reflection of the vortex’s strength.

Although the stratospheric ozone layer is on the mend since some ozone-depleting chemicals were banned by the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s, Wargan said year-to-year variations are expected to influence the size of the ozone holes in the coming decades.

The planet and Antarctica are still warming

Scientists stressed that the record cold over the South Pole in no way refutes or lessens the seriousness of global warming. Antarctica is notorious for its wild swings in weather and climate, which can run counter to global trends.

Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado, wrote in an email that the Antarctic climate is extremely sensitive to high-altitude winds and Pacific Ocean conditions and prone to rapid change. He pointed out that its sea ice, which was close to a record high at the end of August tanked to “to one of the lowest extents for this time of year that we’ve seen” by the end of September.

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To evaluate what’s happening with the climate of Antarctica, one must look beyond a seasonal snapshot, scientists said.

“One cold winter is interesting but doesn’t change the long term trend, which is warming,” Eric Steig, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, wrote in an email.

David Bromwich, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Ohio State University, attributed the cold to increasing “short-term variability" at the South Pole in recent years. “In the long-term average Antarctica is warming,” he wrote in an email.

Not only is Antarctica warming over the long-term, but its ice is rapidly melting, contributing to sea-level rise:

At the moment, though, the Antarctic cold is beyond numbing.

The temperature at the South Pole at the time of publication of this article on Oct. 1 was minus-67 degrees with a wind chill of minus-101.

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