Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

New Study Explains Antarctica’s Coldest Temperatures

New Study Explains Antarctica’s Coldest Temperatures


Tiny valleys near the top of Antarctica’s ice sheet reach temperatures of nearly -100 degrees Celsius, according to a new study published this week in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters. The finding could change scientists’ understanding of just how low temperatures can get at Earth’s surface, and how it happens, according to the researchers.

After sifting through data from several Earth-observing satellites, scientists announced in 2013 that they found surface temperatures of -93 degrees Celsius (-135 degrees Fahrenheit) in several spots on the East Antarctic Plateau, a high snowy plateau in central Antarctica that encompasses the South Pole. That preliminary study has been revised with new data showing that the coldest sites actually reach -98 degrees Celsius (-144 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperatures are observed during the southern polar night, mostly during July and August.

snowy tentBlowing snow conditions at a camp site near Vostok Station in Antarctic summer. Photo: Scambos

When the researchers first announced they had found the coldest temperatures on Earth five years ago, they determined that persistent clear skies and light winds are required for temperatures to dip this low. But the new study adds a twist to the story: Not only are clear skies necessary, but the air must also be extremely dry, because water vapor blocks the loss of heat from the snow surface.

The researchers observed the ultra-low temperatures in small dips or shallow hollows in the Antarctic Ice Sheet where cold, dense, descending air pools above the surface and can remain for several days. This allows the surface, and the air above it, to cool still further, until the clear, calm, and dry conditions break down and the air mixes with warmer air higher in the atmosphere.

“In this area, we see periods of incredibly dry air, and this allows the heat from the snow surface to radiate into space more easily,” said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the study’s lead author.

The record of -98 degrees Celsius is about as cold as it is possible to get at Earth’s surface, according to the researchers. For the temperature to drop that low, clear skies and dry air need to persist for several days. Temperatures could drop a little lower if the conditions lasted for several weeks, but that’s extremely unlikely to happen, Scambos said.


Story written by NSIDC and AGU. Continue reading full story here.


 


CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


contacts

Ted Scambos
NSIDC Senior Scientist
Natasha Vizcarra
NSIDC Media

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