In the last few decades, glaciers at the edge of the icy continent of Antarctica have been thinning, and research has shown the rate of thinning has accelerated and contributed significantly to sea level rise.
New ice core research suggests that, while the changes are dramatic, they cannot be attributed with confidence to human-caused global warming, said Eric Steig, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences.
Previous work by Steig has shown that rapid thinning of Antarctic glaciers was accompanied by rapid warming and changes in atmospheric circulation near the coast. His research with Qinghua Ding, a UW research associate, showed that the majority of Antarctic warming came during the 1990s in response to El Niño conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
Their new research suggests the ’90s were not greatly different from some other decades – such as the 1830s and 1940s – that also showed marked temperature spikes.
“If we could look back at this region of Antarctica in the 1940s and 1830s, we would find that the regional climate would look a lot like it does today, and I think we also would find the glaciers retreating much as they are today,” said Steig, lead author of a paper on the findings published online April 14 in Nature Geoscience.
The researchers’ results are based on their analysis of a new ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide that goes back 2,000 years, along with a number of other ice core records going back about 200 years. They found that during that time there were several decades that exhibited similar climate patterns as the 1990s.