University scientist plays lead role in climate report

Taking on an editing role in the latest State of the Climate report was a 'huge honour', says Dr Kyle Clem.

Photo of Dr Kyle Clem leaning against a railing
Dr Kyle Clem

Stepping into the role of an editor for the latest State of the Climate report has been one of the highlights of Dr Kyle Clem’s career to date, he says.

Dr Clem, a lecturer in Climate Science in Te Kura Tātai Aro Whenua—School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, was editor and a lead author of the report’s chapter on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

This is one of the international and peer-reviewed report’s key chapters, given the influence Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean have on global weather and climate, especially that of New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere.

Dr Clem was invited to become chapter editor last year.

He says the scale of the job would have been much more daunting if the chapter was not split into seven sections, each led by experts and a team of 41 authors.

“It was a huge honour to be invited to serve as editor for such an important chapter, although I am probably biased and of course all of the chapters are important.

“The majority of editors involved with this report are in their mid- to late-career, so to be invited to lead a chapter at such an early stage in my career—only five years since I finished my PhD—was a big honour.”

Dr Clem’s involvement with the annual report dates back to 2013, when he was an MSc student at Ohio University.

“I was invited to take over as lead author of the section in the Antarctic chapter on atmospheric circulation and surface observations.

“I’ve been doing that now every year since, and I’ve also led two special sidebar sections, in 2018 and 2020, on extraordinary events, including the record-warm year at the South Pole during 2018 and the record-high temperatures and surface ice melt on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2020.”

The invitation to edit the chapter came from the previous editors. Dr Clem says he will likely carry on for a three- to five-year term.

“Thankfully, the chapter is in seven sections, covering all aspects of the southern polar climate system, ranging from the stratosphere and the ozone hole, to the atmospheric circulation and surface climate, down to the ice sheet and the ocean.

“One of the key challenges is tying all the sections together into one coherent story. I was surprised to see how seamless this was and how strongly connected everything is to one another. It was an incredible learning experience and I am now even more fascinated and interested in studying this region.

“It’s helpful that I lead the section covering atmospheric circulation, as the circulation and climate anomalies during the year tend to be relevant drivers of other features of the climate system, such as regional surface melt, accumulation/mass balance, sea-ice anomalies, and connections to the ozone hole. So I get a bit of a ‘heads-up’ of what the other sections may have seen prior to them sending me their reports.”

The workload of a chapter editor is spread across about eight months, he says.

“While I’ll take a four-month breather before the process begins again in December, it is helpful, and of great personal interest, to continuously monitor what is going on in Antarctica throughout the year so that I have insight into what significant events will likely need covering in the next report.

“For example, the extraordinary heatwave in East Antarctica and collapse of the Conger ice shelf in March 2022 and the record-low Antarctic sea-ice extents in February 2022, among other things this year, are important items that will need covering in the 2022 report.”

The State of the Climate report has been published annually since 1996 and is the “authoritative” scientific review and a key report for policymakers, Dr Clem says.

“This annual report provides an important routine check-up on the state of the global climate.

“It allows us to monitor changes and the occurrence of unusual or extreme events that may otherwise go undetected. This provides clues and insights into the ways in which our climate system works, how it is behaving and responding to climate change, and also highlights key events that require further dedicated investigation.”

Major findings in the Antarctic chapter of the latest report include that 2021 saw:

  • the coldest winter on record at the South Pole, helped by a strong polar vortex (with a winter average temperature of -61°C)
  • the second longest-lived ozone hole on record
  • huge fluctuations in sea ice from near-record highs to record lows
  • loss of 50 gigatonnes of ice mass, with a 0.14mm contribution to global sea-level rise in 2021,
  • above-average snowfall due to an unusually high number of ’atmospheric rivers’ making landfall, which slightly countered Antarctica’s total ice mass loss in 2021.

The State of the Climate report was released on 31 August 2022.