The article by Steig et al (2009) in Nature this month has had quite a few people talking. In their letter to nature titled; “Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year” they have made the startling claim that the East Antarctic is in fact warming and it is warming significantly (statistically speaking). It has long been regarded that East Antarctica has not warmed significantly in past decades. It has been well accepted that the West Antarctic has warmed significantly in recent decades (more on this later).
What did Steig et al. (2009) do that was different to other studies? In effect they interpolated the temperature of the continent as a whole by infilling gaps in the instrumental records (very large ones in this case) with data from satellites. They used Thermal Infra-red (Tir) data from the NOAA satellite using the AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer). The Tir data measures the temperature at the surface (i.e. the ground and not the atmosphere above it). This can be fraught with incorrect readings of temperature due to the varying characteristics of the surface topography and makeup. However, Steig et al 2009 argue :
“Although it has been suggested that such interpolation is unreliable owing to the distances involved, large spatial scales are not inherently problematic if there is high spatial coherence, as is the case in continental Antarctica.”
Steig et al (2009) used the RegEM algorithm to combine data from weather stations and the Tir satellite information. They did this because most of the weather station data is centered on the coastal regions of the continent and therefore they tried to interpolate the interior temperature profile of the continent with the satellite data.