The Southern Ocean is known to have warmed considerably during the second half of the 20th century but there are few locations with data before the 1950s. In addition, assessments of change in this region are hampered by the strong seasonal bias in sampling, with the vast majority of data collected during the austral summer. However, oceanographic measurements near South Georgia span most of the last century, and we here consider almost year-round data from this location over an 81-year period (1925 to 2006). Based on these data, we observe significant warming between the early and late 20th century, with differential warming between summer and winter months and an indication that late 20th century summer temperatures peaked ~6 days earlier. To quantify the long-term warming trend in this highly variable data, a mixed model utilising a Residual Maximum Likelihood (REML) method was used. Over the 81-year period, a mean increase of ~0.9°C in January and ~2.3°C in August was evident in the top 100 m of the water column. Warming diminished below 100 m and approached zero at 200 m. Thus the long-term warming around South Georgia is substantial – more so than documented previously for the circumpolar warming of the Southern Ocean. We examine potential causal effects of this trend, including local atmospheric and cryospheric change, the influence of upstream waters and the role of coupled modes of climate variaibility. It is likely that all of these play a part in the observed temperature increase. However, the role of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is strongly indicated, via its likely role in the circumpolar warming trend in the Southern Ocean, and also due to the atypical response of the South Georgia region to changes in heat fluxes associated with the SAM. In addition, we consider the implications that long-term warming has for South Georgia’s lower trophic levels. For Euphausia superba, we find a significant negative relationship between summer South Georgia water temperatures and mean summer density of E. superba across the southwest Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean. Simple abundance and growth rate relationships with our long-term temperature data appear to show declining habitat suitability for E. superba. In general, the warming trend is likely to favour other macro- and mesozooplankton species that occupy the more northerly parts of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and it is likely to promote phytoplankton growth.
(Deep-Sea Res., in press)