A team of international researchers has discovered a recent, massive melting event on the surface of West Antarctica, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.
Scientists found that in the summer of 2016, the Ross Ice Shelf — the largest floating ice platform on Earth — developed a sheet of meltwater that lasted up to 15 days. This affected more than 300,000 square miles and could be a sign of future trends.
Such an event is concerning because models show that surface melting could build on ocean-driven melting. If that happens, it could threaten all of West Antarctica.
“[I]n the future, we could see action at the surface of these ice shelves as well from surface melting,” explained study co-author David Bromwich, an Antarctic expert at Ohio State University, according to The Washington Post. “So that makes them potentially much more unstable.”
Researchers observed the melting through a monitoring station deep in the heart of West Antarctica that detected both warming in the atmosphere and the presence of clouds holding large amounts of moisture. They then used both satellites and microwave data to determine the consequences of the event.
This revealed that the Ross Ice Shelf was not covered with lakes or pools. Rather, the liquid water mixed with the snow on top of it. Data also showed that the melting occurred during a strong El Niño. This brought in moist air from the ocean and created rainfall in certain areas on top of the shelf.
While scientists are monitoring the occurrence, they say it did not have any lasting consequences. This because the shelf quickly refroze after the melting happened. However, the trend is still worrisome because it fits into the pattern described by a study conducted last year that predicted major ice loss within this century.
West Antarctica’s ice shelves hold back massive glaciers. If they melt, it could cause water to filter down to their depths and force them to break apart. That process could then drive sea level rises across the world.
“In West Antarctica, we have a tug-of-war going on between the influence of El Niños and the westerly winds, and it looks like the El Niños are winning,” said Bromwich, in a statement. “It’s a pattern that is emerging. And 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.”