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Why Antarctica's Not Melting As Much (For Now)

Here's a handy animated map from NOAA showing all the places on the planet where it's unseasonably warm and unseasonably cool right now. Curiously, the freak cold seems to be occurring everywhere major media centers are located—the northeastern United States, Europe, Japan—so the chilly weather's grabbing all the headlines. But it's anomalously warm just about everywhere else in the world, especially the Arctic. (For more on the overall trends, see Joe Romm's post.)

Oh, there's one other big exception: It seems to be anomalously cold in Antarctica right now. Why is that? New Scientist has a good short piece on this phenomenon: For the past few decades, as global temperatures have risen, the South Pole has been heating up a lot during the winter and spring, but there hasn't nearly as much warming in the summer. Now, since most of the glacial melt happens in the summer, this is good news for coastal dwellers—the cold summers are helping to fend off sea-level rise. Mind you, Antarctic ice shelves are still collapsing, and some years, like 2005, have seen an alarming rate of melt. But the relatively cool summers are slowing that pace somewhat—2009, for instance, saw record-low Antarctic melt.

The bad news, alas, is that a big reason Antarctic summers are still relatively chilly appears to be the hole in the ozone layer, which strengthens circumpolar winds and shields the continent from global warming. But since we've banned CFCs (with good reason), the ozone layer's slowly on the mend, and as it heals, the greenhouse effect will take over and Antarctic summers will heat up even more in the coming decades, according to Marco Tedesco, an atmospheric scientist at the City College of New York. It's like we just can't win.

(Flickr photo credit: Chris&Steve)