21 Feb 2023
 | 21 Feb 2023
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Drivers and rarity of the strong 1940s westerly wind event over the Amundsen Sea, West Antarctica

Gemma K. O'Connor, Paul R. Holland, Eric J. Steig, Pierre Dutrieux, and Gregory J. Hakim

Abstract. Glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica are rapidly retreating and contributing to sea level rise. Ice loss is occurring primarily via exposure to warm ocean water, which varies in response to local wind variability. There is evidence that retreat was initiated in the mid-20th century, but the perturbation that may have triggered retreat remains unknown. A leading hypothesis is that large pressure and wind anomalies in the 1940s drove exceptionally strong oceanic ice-shelf melting. However, the characteristics, drivers, and rarity of the atmospheric event remain poorly constrained. We investigate the 1940s atmospheric event using paleoclimate reconstructions and climate model simulations. The reconstructions show that large westerly wind anomalies occurred from ~1938–1942, a combined response to the very large El Niño event from 1940–1942 and other variability beginning years earlier. Climate model simulations provide evidence that events of similar magnitude and duration are unusual but may have occurred tens to hundreds of times throughout the Holocene. Our results suggest that the 1940s westerly event is unlikely to have been exceptional enough to be the sole explanation for the initiation of Amundsen Sea glacier retreat. Naturally arising variability in ocean conditions prior to the 1940s, or anthropogenically driven trends since the 1940s, may be needed to explain the onset of retreat in West Antarctica.

Gemma K. O'Connor et al.

Status: open (until 18 Apr 2023)

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  • RC1: 'Comment on tc-2023-16', Anonymous Referee #1, 23 Mar 2023 reply
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Gemma K. O'Connor et al.

Gemma K. O'Connor et al.


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Short summary
Glaciers in West Antarctica are rapidly melting, but the causes are unknown due to limited observations. A leading hypothesis is that an unusually large wind event in the 1940s initiated the ocean-driven melting. Using proxy reconstructions (e.g., using ice cores) and climate model simulations, we find that wind events similar to the 1940s event are relatively common on millennial timescales, implying that ocean variability or climate trends are also necessary to explain the start of ice loss.