Heat Wave Sparks Massive Ice Melt In Antarctica

A heat wave that lasted for nearly a week has caused a massive ice melt in Antarctica. The weather station at Esperanza Base on the Antarctic Peninsula logged the hottest temperature ever recorded on the mainland on February 6. The temperature was 64.9°F (18.3°C), matching that day’s temperature in Los Angeles.

The effects of the heat wave could be seen most dramatically on Eagle Island, located just off the coast of Graham Land in the Antarctic Peninsula. Images taken by the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 showed a large amount of Eagle Island’s ice cap melting into the sea during the period between Feb. 6 and Feb. 11. In total, 4 inches of snow pack on Eagle Island melted in that time.  

The biggest loss of ice and snow came on Feb. 6, when an inch of snowpack melted. By the end of the period, melt ponds had formed in areas towards the middle of the island. Where there were once white ice caps, there are now brown blotches of land.

Persistent high temperatures significantly above freezing is not typical of Antarctic weather patterns. The annual mean temperature of Antarctica’s central area is -70.6°F (-57°C). Around the coast, the temperature averages around 14°F (-10°C).

However, these periods of extended warming have become more common in recent years. Experts at the World Meteorological Organization calls the Antarctic Peninsula one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth. Average temperatures have been rising almost 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past half century.

The heat wave in February was the third major heat event of the 2019-2020 Southern Hemisphere summer. Both November and January also recorded exceptionally warm weather.