Record-breaking heatwave in Antarctica melted one of its island’s 20%

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The FINANCIAL — Recent heatwave hitting Antarctica Islands caused 20% of the snow to melt. These short-term heat waves can have long-lasting consequences. The Antarctic Ice Sheet lost around three trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017.

On February 6, 2020, weather stations recorded the hottest temperature on record for Antarctica. Thermometers at the Esperanza Base on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula reached 18.3°C (64.9°F)—around the same temperature as Los Angeles that day. The warm spell caused widespread melting on nearby glaciers, NASA Earth Observatory reported.

Eagle Island is only about 25 miles from Argentina’s Esperanza research base, which recorded the potentially record-high temperature on February 6. According to NASA climate models, the island experienced peak melt — about 1 inch — on that same day, leading to a loss of 4 inches total in a one-week period. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is still working to verify the record temperature, but the agency called the Antarctic Peninsula one of the faster warming regions on Earth, CNN wrote.

The warmth during early February comes against the background of sharply increasing temperatures linked to human-caused climate change, with melting glaciers and vulnerable floating ice shelves the subject of increasing concern to scientists and policymakers alike. These short-term heat waves can have long-lasting consequences. The Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in a matter of days in 2002 during a warm spell and foehn wind event, speeding the flow of upstream ice into the sea, according to The Washington Post.

The heatwave was the culmination of several atypical weather patterns off the coast of South America. Warm temperatures built up due to a ridge of high pressure over Cape Horn, Chile. While warm air is typically kept out of the peninsula by strong winds, the westerlies were in a weakened state, allowing warm air to reach the ice sheet. Scientists also recently found warm water for the first time beneath a vital point of Antarctica’s “doomsday glacier,” a nickname for one of Antarctica’s fastest melting glaciers. The collapse of the 74,000-square-mile Thwaites could release a mass of water roughly the size of Florida or Great Britain, raising sea levels by more than three feet, as reported by CBS News.

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A mix of meteorological factors, from warm mountain winds to larger patterns in the ocean and atmosphere, are responsible for the balmy blast. But the bizarre weather is also consistent with a long-term trend. While summertime temperatures across the Antarctic Peninsula normally hover around freezing or rise just a few degrees above, the region has experienced dramatic warming in recent decades, making it easier for heat spells to veer into record-breaking territory. And with Earth’s climate continuing to warm as atmospheric carbon levels soar, any newly minted records probably won’t last long, National Geographic wrote.

“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” said Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College. “You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.” He also used satellite images to detect widespread surface melting nearby on Boydell Glacier. This February heatwave was the third major melt event of the 2019-2020 summer, following warm spells in November 2019 and January 2020. “If you think about this one event in February, it isn’t that significant,” said Pelto. “It’s more significant that these events are coming more frequently,“ NASA Earth Observatory stated.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet lost around three trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017, according to research led by Leeds University. This figure corresponds to a mean sea-level rise of about eight millimetres (1/3 inch), with two-fifths of this rise coming in the last five years alone. The finds mean people in coastal communities are at greater risk of losing their homes and becoming so-called climate refugees than previously feared, Daily Mail reported.

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