Skip navigation

Press Release - Climate change causes extreme changes to Antarctic Lakes

Issue date: 21 Jan 2002

21 January 2002 PR Number 2/2002 Results from a 20-year study reveal dramatic ecological changes to lakes in Antarctica caused by a 1?C temperature increase. The findings, reported this week in SCIENCE, are yet more evidence of extreme changes in the Antarctic Peninsula region. This area has experienced some of the most rapid warming of anywhere on Earth in the past 50 years (2.5?C). The study lakes, on Signy Island, lie some 700 km north-east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Scientists from the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are attempting to understand complex changes in the Antarctic and investigate the implications for global change. The new results show that summer air temperatures increased by about 1?C during the study period. Each year Signy's lakes freeze and thaw. Between 1981 and 1995 the number of ice-free days increased by about a month. These conditions have caused lake water temperatures to rise by 0.2-1.3?C, whilst local sea temperatures remained the same. An increase in the amount of solar energy absorbed and the introduction of nutrients transported by glacier melt-water flowing over exposed ground has altered the lakes' ecology. A ten-fold increase in the amount of phosphate has acted as a natural fertilizer, enabling algae to flourish. Dr. Wendy Quayle, lead author of the research, says, "The value of long-term studies such as these - there are no other records like this for Antarctica - is our ability to observe the effects of an increase in temperature of just 1?C. We've seen how this can boost life in these lakes - for example, there is now three times the amount of chlorophyll from algae in the lake than there was 20 years ago." Professor Lloyd Peck of BAS says, "Because the Signy Island lakes used in this study have not been contaminated by human or animal waste they are very different from lakes in most parts of the world. The pristine nature of Antarctic lakes give us a unique natural laboratory - where we can identify changes that are undetectable in contaminated lakes." BAS Meteorologist John Turner says, "In recent decades we\'ve seen a complex picture of temperature change over the whole Antarctic continent. Whilst the Antarctic Peninsula region has seen one of the largest temperature increases on Earth over the last 50 years, the South Pole has experienced a small cooling. However, what we can say with certainty is that Antarctica is extremely sensitive to environmental change." -ENDS- Issued by British Antarctic Survey Press Office. Press enquiries to: British Antarctic Survey Press Office Linda Capper - Telephone (01223) 221448; Mobile 07714 233744; Email: Athena Dinar - Telephone (01223) 221414; Mobile 07740 822229; Email: For more information contact: Professor Lloyd Peck - Telephone: (01223) 221603 (work); Email:
Dr. Cynan Ellis-Evans - Telephone: (01223) 221555 (work); Email: John Turner - Telephone: (01223) 221485 Dr. Wendy Quayle - (now working in Australia). Telephone: 61 2 6960 1537 (work); Email:
NOTES TO EDITORS Extreme responses to climate change in Antarctic lakes by Wendy Quayle, Lloyd Peck, Helen Peat, Cynan Ellis-Evans and Richard Harrigan is published this week in Science. Antarctic lakes: The study of microbial food webs in Antarctic lakes is part of BAS's core science programme 'Life at the edge' which examines Antarctic ecosystems with the aim of understanding how species cope with environmental change. Signy Island: Signy Island is a small subantarctic island, 6.5km long and less than 5 km wide. Latitude 60? 43' S, Longitude 45? 36' W, South Orkney Islands. Occupied 18 March 1947 - 13 April 1996. Austral summers 1996 - 97 to present. There is permanent ice cover over a large part of the island, which rises to 288 m. In summer, extensive areas of moss and some grasses are exposed, and there are numerous freshwater pools and lakes. The station is open from November to April with a population of eight to ten staff. British Antarctic Survey is responsible for most of the UK's research in Antarctica. It is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. Picture editors: Photographs and video footage of Signy lakes are available from the BAS Press Office.