While the northeastern U.S. was deluged with snow over the past few months, much of the world was experiencing some remarkably balmy temperatures. Now, the coldest place on Earth—Antarctica—has registered what might just be the highest temperatures ever for the continent. On March 24, daytime temperatures at Antarctica’s Esperanza research station soared to 63.5°F (17.5°C), and if this temperature is confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, it may set an alarming new record.
The currently unofficial record high temperature reading comes as researchers announce that ice shelves in western Antarctica—a particular warming hotspot—have lost some 18 percent of their thickness in the past decade. This means they are melting significantly faster than had previously been thought, and raises significant concerns for the effect this may have on sea level rise.
What is of additional concern to scientists is that it is currently Fall in Antarctica: we’re a full three months past the season in which record high temperatures could typically be expected. So what happened? According to Jeff Masters at the Weather Underground: “This week’s record temperatures were made possible by an unusually extreme jet stream contortion that brought a strong ridge of high pressure over the Antarctic Peninsula, allowing warm air from South America to push southwards over Antarctica.”
The temperature recorded at Esperanza is backed up by a reading of 63.3°F (17.4°C) a day earlier 60 miles away at Base Marambio, and—if confirmed—well surpass the previous record high temperature of 59.0°F (15.0°C) that was observed at Vanda Station on January 5, 1974. Temperatures of 62.7°F and 61.7°F have been observed in the 20th century at Esparanza and Marambio respectively, but were never confirmed by the WMO.
The WMO will ultimately determine whether or not Esparanza’s March 24 reading will make it into the record books. The process to confirm the temperature could take months; according to Weather Underground, there’s a lot of steps to be taken. To start with, the agency must determine “the definition of the region of ‘Antarctica’ for the purpose of weather records relating to the continent.” And it rather goes from there, with checks needed as to the maintenance and operation of weather reporting equipment on the bases on the days in question.
Even as “unofficial” recordings, these temperatures make for alarming news in a changing climate.