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Antarctica just had a record heat wave with temperatures soaring up to 90 degrees above normal

Icebergs in the Antarctic. Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel
Icebergs in the Antarctic. Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel

Antarctica is in the middle of a heatwave that has sent temperatures at the coldest place on earth soaring up to 90 degrees above their normal range.

Scientists don't know what to make of the latest episode of the phenomenon climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has dubbed "global weirding".

"This event is completely unprecedented and upended our expectations about the Antarctic climate system," Jonathan Wille, a French polar meteorologist wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

The Antarctic continent is still very very cold, but temperatures that would normally be fifty or sixty degrees below zero are now closer to zero or even inching above zero degrees Fahrenheit. It's unprecedented in the history of human measurement of conditions at the South Pole.

American researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Linda Keller and Matt Lazzara, wrote to the Post that the high temperatures are especially noteworthy since March is actually the beginning of Autumn on the continent -- when sunlight hitting the pole drops by 25 minutes every day.

The location of the heat wave isn't in one of the areas where scientists are most concerned about threats of glacier collapse and -- so far -- the heat wave is viewed as an anomaly rather than a sign of things to come. Models show the atmospheric river will exit the continent around Saturday, but the moisture will take longer to dissipate. Abnormally high temperatures in the region could last through the weekend. The abnormally high temperatures have caused some melting in the region according to models, which is unusual as this part of Antarctica doesn’t experience much melt often. This one melt event won’t affect the stability of the glaciers in that area though. “[W]e can’t tell whether this is going to be a new trend or is just an oddity that occurs occasionally on a most fascinating continent,” the two American scientists wrote in an email to the Post.

Parts of Antarctica are already on thin ice. The Thwaites Glacier -- also known as the "Doomsday Glacier" -- is the subject of a landmark $50 million research effort to observe how close the glacier is to collapse.

This massive glacier is roughly the size of Britain and contains enough water to raise sea levels by about 1.5 feet. The melting glacier already contributes about 4% to rising seawaters and its collapse could be the beginning of the total destruction of glaciers along the Antarctic coast that could cause catastrophic sea level rise.

The positioning of the Thwaites glacier acts like a cork stopping the glacial masses behind it from reaching the sea.

Already, rising sea levels that can be measured in millimeters are causing more powerful storm surges and increasing the damage from coastal storms and flooding. If more Antarctic ice melts -- causing sea levels to rise even more -- it could be disastrous for coastal cities around the world.

Investments into community developments and technologies that can withstand the storm surges and increased flooding risk are growing around the world.

On New York's Rockaway Beach developers are building a community designed to be protected from the kinds of rising waters that concern scientists.

Out at sea and around coastlines coral and oyster reef formations and mangrove habitats are being redeveloped and revived in an effort to create natural breaks to reduce the intensity of storm surges and reduce the energy of waves. The technique is known as creating a "living shoreline" and it creates natural barriers to rising waters.

"Building a living shoreline starts with a good understanding of what the natural condition along that shoreline once was," Steve Cyphers, a coastal scientist at Northeastern University, told NBC News back in 2017.

Meanwhile new technologies are being used to manage flooding in coastal towns and cities.

Startups like the Dutch company, Bufferblock, and the U.S.-based Aquipor, are making porous road systems that can drain water instead of having it collect on roadways and in cities.

"Tempting as it might be, the solution is not to further bend nature to our will by building bigger, higher, and longer versions of water-­engineering infrastructure. It is to work more with natural processes, rather than against them, and to repair the water cycle, rather than continue to break it," wrote Sandra Postel, the director of the Global Water Policy Project, in a recent opinion piece for MIT Technology Review. "As floods worsen, for example, instead of raising the height of levees—which often intensifies flooding downstream—we can consider ways to strategically reconnect rivers to their natural floodplains. In this way, we can mitigate floods, capture more carbon, recharge groundwater, and build critical habitat for fish, birds, and wildlife."

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