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Warm Period Causes Unusual Antarctic Melting

Eagle Island, Antarctica —(Map)

A period of very warm temperatures in Antarctica has caused unusually heavy melting in the most northern areas of the continent. Eagle Island, off the Antarctic peninsula, lost 4 inches (106mm) of snow and ice in just nine days.

Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent. Most of the land in Antarctica is covered with a layer of ice and snow that’s around 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) thick, on average.

Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), Hope Bay, Trinity Peninsula, on the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
Most of the land in Antarctica is covered with a layer of ice and snow. A period of very warm temperatures has recently caused unusually heavy melting in the most northern areas of Antarctica.
(Source: Andrew Shiva, WikimediaCommons.org.)

As snow falls, it piles up in the center of Antarctica in a huge layer of ice. Over time, the pressure of the ice creates glaciers, which push outward toward the sea.

In recent years, the falling snow has not been keeping up with the melting ice, and the snowpack covering Antarctica has been thinning.

Esperanza Station, Hope Bay, Trinity Peninsula, on the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula
On February 6, scientists report that Antarctica had recorded its highest temperature ever, reaching 64.9º Fahrenheit (18.3º Celsius). The temperature was recorded at Argentina’s Esperanza research base (above).
(Source: Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

On February 6, scientists reported that Antarctica had recorded its highest temperature ever, reaching 64.9º Fahrenheit (18.3º Celsius). The temperature was recorded at Argentina’s Esperanza research base.

Esperanza is located on the Antarctic peninsula – a long finger of land in Antarctica that reaches toward South America. The tip of the peninsula is the most northern part of Antarctica.

Map of Antarctica indicating location of Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic peninsula (red box) is a long finger of land in Antarctica that reaches toward South America. The tip of the peninsula is the most northern part of Antarctica. This is where Esperanza and Eagle Island are located.
(Source: Jeandré/Anna Frodesiak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Though the temperature record was set on February 6, the warm weather began the day before and continued through February 13. During that 9-day period, unusually heavy melting was recorded on the Antarctic peninsula.

Eagle Island is just off the tip of the peninsula. NASA  has recently released two pictures of Eagle Island. One was taken on February 4 and the other was taken nine days later on February 13. The pictures show the snow and ice almost completely melted away from the island’s coasts.

Before-and-after snapshots showing the rapid melting of the snowpack on Eagle Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula over nine days.
NASA released these pictures of Eagle Island. One was taken on February 4 and the other was taken on February 13. The pictures show the snow and ice almost completely melted away from the island’s coasts.
(Source: NASA.)

NASA reports that the island lost about 20% of the snow it got this year in just nine days.

In the center of the island are large “melt ponds”. Scientist Mauri Pelto, who studies glaciers says, “I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica.” The largest melt pond was around 1.5 square kilometers (0.6 square miles).

Image showing the rapid melting of the snowpack on Eagle Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula after a 9-day warm period.
NASA reports that the island lost about 20% of the snow it got this year in just nine days. In the center of the island are large “melt ponds”. The largest melt pond was around 1.5 square kilometers (0.6 square miles).
(Source: NASA.)

Before the year 2000, long periods of warm temperatures in Antarctica were very unusual. But since that time, warm periods have become more common.

Temperatures around the world have been rising due to climate change.  Last year was the second hottest year ever, and the last ten years were the hottest decade ever recorded.

Map showing temperatures across the Antarctic Peninsula on February 9, 2020.
Strong winds called “Westerlies” normally keep warm air from South America away from Antarctica, but the Westerlies were weak at the time. The map shows temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula on February 9. Yellow/red means above freezing.
(Source: NASA.)

Scientists are still trying to understand exactly what, besides rising temperatures, caused the warm weather. Changes in wind patterns could be part of the reason. Strong winds called “Westerlies” normally keep warm air from South America from reaching Antarctica, but the Westerlies were weak at the time.

Dr. Pelto says that a single melting event like this one isn’t very important by itself. But he says that when it’s part of a larger pattern, it becomes important.

Eagle Island, Antarctica


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