A recent snowmelt event in West Antarctica could provide scientists with more information to understand how climate change will alter our world. A team of 14 scientists from American and Australian institutions documented widespread melting that happened in 2016, precipitated largely by warm winds from El Niño. An unusually hot summer didn’t help either. We have evidence warm waters are melting ice shelves in Antarctica, but this event was one of the first instances where researchers were able to document how warm air could induce melting from the skies.
An area of West Antarctica more than double the size of California partially melted in January 2016. The Ross Ice Shelf’s surface had a sheet of meltwater that remained for up to 15 days in some locations. And as luck would have it, researchers had just deployed instruments to measure the environment just before the melt event happened. Dan Lubin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said, “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.”
Warm air from El Niño influenced the mass melting. Such melt event usually happen when westerly winds are weak, but scientists say this event was unique because the westerly winds were strong during the melt event. Without those winds the melting might have been even worse.
David Bromwich, geography professor at The Ohio State University, said in a statement, “…because we expect stronger, more frequent El Niños in the future with a warming climate, we can expect more major surface melt events in West Antarctica.” If melting happens more often, the ice sheet would deteriorate faster, he said.
The journal Nature Communications published the research online this week.