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Antarctica is turning into a snow globe because the Earth is warming

AP Photo/David Goldman, file
Thick, stable sea ice is becoming a thing of the past.
  • Chase Purdy
By Chase Purdy

Food Reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The world has been warming for at least two centuries, and it’s turning Antarctica into a veritable snow globe.

Scientists this week (April 9) announced new evidence (pdf) showing the amount of snowfall on the Great White Continent has grown over time. The findings were presented (pdf) at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, where researchers revealed that annual snowfall has increased by about 10% since the early 1800s.

That’s a lot of snow. About 272 metric gigatons more snow fell in Antarctica each year between 2001 and 2010 than in the years between 1801 and 1810, according to researchers. That’s enough to fill the Dead Sea two times.

It may sound odd to hear news of more snow during a time when scientists keep uncovering more evidence that polar ice caps are melting, raising sea levels around the world. But it makes sense, and it’s not a good sign for the Earth. Warmer temperatures mean more moisture in the air, which creates better conditions for snow over Antarctica. So really, this is a sign of the same climate problems causing droughts, storms, and floods.

The findings may help answer a question scientists have had about the impact of snowfall on rapid climate change. Plainly put, would more snowfall in Antarctica slow the rise of sea levels by trapping water in the form of snow? The answer: Probably not. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature suggested more snow correlated with an increase in the rate at which ice breaks and floats away.

The discovery came about thanks to research on 79 ice cores drilled out from across the continent. Those cylinder-shaped samples allow scientists to examine layers of snow and ice that developed over time, which offer a historical perspective of Antarctic seasons.

As pointed out by the BBC, the ice cores not only tell scientists when in history snowfall occurred, but also how much precipitation and during what season. That’s thanks in part to the presence in the ice cores of hydrogen peroxide, which occurs in nature when sunlight hits water vapor. The amount of that chemical in the snow layers tells scientists whether the snow fell in the summer months with long daylight hours, or in the dark winter months. These data should help international scientists improve the accuracy of computer simulations that predict future sea-level rise.

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