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28 June 2017

Researchers Identify Cause of Widespread Snow Melt in West Antarctica Last Year

New research has found that an expanse of West Antarctica which partially melted last year did so as a result of warm winds. This area, which was over 300,000 square miles in size, was subject to higher temperature winds over the course of two weeks back in January 2016.

It was discovered via satellite data that a large portion of snow and ice had melted over the Ross Ice Shelf, a thick platform of ice that channels one third of the ice from the West Antarctic Sheet to the ocean. This is one of the first times that evidence has been collected showing the widespread impact of melting by warm air from above.

The melt occurred largely because of warm winds brought on by a particularly strong El Niño. This is where warm water from the equatorial Pacific Ocean travels eastwards and influences weather patterns and wind, creating a feedback loop between the atmosphere and the ocean. In the case of last year’s event, the strong westerly winds that usually hold back the warmer air blowing over the north of the continent failed to do so, thereby resulting in the melt of the ice sheet. Had the westerly winds been weak, it’s likely that the extent of melting would have been much more severe.

The research team were extremely lucky to have made the discovery, given the instruments they sourced the data from had been installed for a different purpose several weeks earlier. Originally, they were set up to aid with a study into the way clouds influence how much energy reaches the snow’s surface and affect its temperature.

Dan Lubin who acted as principal investigator of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) West Antarctic Radiation Experiment (AWARE) said he felt fortunate to have made this discovery through such unexpected circumstances. He also stressed how important the findings are for the future of understanding global warming by saying:

“These atmospheric measurements will help geophysical scientists develop better physical models for projecting how the Antarctic ice sheet might respond to a changing climate and influence sea level rise.”

This may prove to be vital as global temperatures continue to rise and increase the risk of melting like this in the future. David Bromwich, co-author of the research study, identified that there’s a growing struggle between the westlerly winds and the influence of El Niños, with the latter coming out on top. His expectations for how this would influence the state of West Antarctica aren’t hopeful, stating that “we expect stronger, more frequent El Niños in the future,” which will create “more major surface melt events”. Ultimately, this would speed up the collapse of the ice sheet.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.