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Letters to Nature

Nature 415, 517-520 (31 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/nature710; Received 28 September 2001; Accepted 4 December 2001; Published online 13 January 2002

Antarctic climate cooling and terrestrial ecosystem response

Peter T. Doran1, John C. Priscu2, W. Berry Lyons3, John E. Walsh4, Andrew G. Fountain5, Diane M. McKnight6, Daryl L. Moorhead7, Ross A. Virginia8, Diana H. Wall9, Gary D. Clow10, Christian H. Fritsen11, Christopher P. McKay12 & Andrew N. Parsons9

  1. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago, 845 West Taylor Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607, USA
  2. Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, 334 Leon Johnson Hall, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA
  3. Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University, 1090 Carmack Road, Scott Hall, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA
  4. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, 105 South Gregory Street, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA
  5. Department of Geology, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon 97207, USA
  6. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, 1560 30th Street, Campus Box 450, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
  7. Department of Earth, Ecological and Environmental Sciences, 2801 W. Bancroft Street, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606, USA
  8. Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, 6182 Steele Hall, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA
  9. Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA
  10. USGS—Climate Program, Box 25046, MS 980, Denver Federal Center, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA
  11. Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Desert Research Institute, 2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA
  12. Space Science Division, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, California 94035, USA

Correspondence to: Peter T. Doran1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to P.T.D. (e-mail: Email: pdoran@uic.edu).

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The average air temperature at the Earth's surface has increased by 0.06 °C per decade during the 20th century1, and by 0.19 °C per decade from 1979 to 19982. Climate models generally predict amplified warming in polar regions3, 4, as observed in Antarctica's peninsula region over the second half of the 20th century5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Although previous reports suggest slight recent continental warming9, 10, our spatial analysis of Antarctic meteorological data demonstrates a net cooling on the Antarctic continent between 1966 and 2000, particularly during summer and autumn. The McMurdo Dry Valleys have cooled by 0.7 °C per decade between 1986 and 2000, with similar pronounced seasonal trends. Summer cooling is particularly important to Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems that are poised at the interface of ice and water. Here we present data from the dry valleys representing evidence of rapid terrestrial ecosystem response to climate cooling in Antarctica, including decreased primary productivity of lakes (6–9% per year) and declining numbers of soil invertebrates (more than 10% per year). Continental Antarctic cooling, especially the seasonality of cooling, poses challenges to models of climate and ecosystem change.