Revising the Antarctic Anomaly

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Well, this is certainly intriguing! The big news in the environmental sphere this week seems to be the unexpected growth of Antarctic sea ice in 2012, an anomaly that NBC News calls a “global warming paradox.” Around here, we’re used to alarming news about the rapid decrease in Arctic sea ice. Heck, we’ve even seen reports that Arctic sea ice could be gone by the summer of 2016, if current trends continue. The Antarctic paradox, then, seems to be that though we’re nowhere near being out of hot water (pun intended) on the warming oceans front, the mass of Antarctic sea ice (where sea ice tends to be more scattered and mobile) seems to have grown to the massive size of 7.51 million square miles, the largest area of sea ice ever recorded in this region.

So… what’s the deal? According to National Geographic, the explanation has something to do with melting ice shelves. Where once the dominant theories on the subject pointed to heavier snowfall in the area brought on by warmer, moister air (which would in turn create heavier snowfalls that would reduce the saline levels in the top layers of the ocean, making them more stable), the scientists behind a new study are pointing to massive ice shelves that surround the continent melting down in higher temperatures, which creates a stream of fresh water flowing into the surface layer of the Southern Ocean and (as in the “more snow” theory) protecting the ice shelves from the warmer waters beneath.

However, this newest theory doesn’t seem to be definitive just yet. Other plausible explanations indict wind patterns as the culprit, while others say it could be a combination of all three factors (warmer air temperatures, wind factors, and melting ice shelves). I guess we’ll just wait and see?

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