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Meteorologists explore the weather systems that impact Antarctic climate change 

By Andrea Gibson
Oct. 19, 2012

Scientists have been puzzled by the uneven climate change observed in Antarctica over the last few decades. While the eastern region has remained relatively stable in temperature, and even has gained sea ice, the west has recorded some of the most dramatic warming trends in the world.

Ryan Fogt
, an assistant professor of geography at Ohio University, is trying to unlock the mystery behind this phenomenon. With a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Fogt and his students recently began to analyze a persistent atmospheric low-pressure system called the Amundsen-Bellingshausen Seas Low to determine what role it might play in this asymmetrical climate pattern.

After digging through several sources of climate data, the team discovered that this weather system is highly influenced by storms in the region. And in the last 30 years, those storms have been getting stronger and more frequent, especially in the spring. The most powerful cyclones tracked—which have a hurricane category 3 or 4 intensity—had a direct connection to the low-pressure system, according to findings the team published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

 fogt_antarctica
Fogt collects data from a weather station near Mount Erebus, the world's southernmost active volcano. (Courtesy of Ryan Fogt)

The study is the first step towards characterizing and developing a better understanding of the Amundsen-Bellingshausen Seas Low. Antarctic climate research is challenging, Fogt says, because little reliable data exists prior to the launch of satellites in the late 1970s. In other parts of the world, scientists may have climate data from the last 200 years. Antarctica is about 1.5 times the size of the United States, Fogt notes, but is home to only about 17 staffed weather stations.

“There are a lot of gaps to fill in,” says Fogt, the director of Ohio University’s Scalia Laboratory for Atmospheric Analysis.

But Fogt and other scientists are determined to complete the picture. In the last four years, Fogt has worked with 20 researchers from around the world to produce an annual climate report on Antarctica for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We’ve collected enough data to believe that certain regions are warming rapidly and that there are manmade components to this,” says Fogt, who serves as editor of the reports.

What’s at stake? Antarctic climate change already has impacted the marine ecosystem and terrestrial animal habitats. Although the growing glacier on the eastern side of the continent may sound promising, Fogt notes that it’s posed a challenge for the penguins that travel long distances over the ice to access open water and food for their young. The west is experiencing some of the fastest glacier melt in the region, which eventually could trigger a rise in global sea levels if thawing continues.

While the forecast may be troubling, Fogt is optimistic about educating the next generation of climate scientists. His NSF grant supports Ohio University undergraduate and graduate students who are exploring other factors that might influence the Antarctic low-pressure system—from the hole in the ozone layer to El Niño. Fogt also has received support from the Ohio Space Grant Consortium to install weather stations at six southeastern Ohio middle schools. Students can track local weather with the equipment, and can compare it to data Fogt gathers from stations in Antarctica. Fogt hopes that the project will give Ohio youth a better appreciation of global climate change. And who knows? It might even inspire a teen to pursue scientific exploration in Antarctica, where Fogt admits he got “ice in the veins.”

“Once I experienced Antarctica firsthand,” he recalls, “I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” 

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, students and staff.