Antarctica's Record-Breaking Heat Wave Melts 20 Percent of Snow on One of Its Islands in 9 Days

Gabrielle Chung

About a fifth of snow on one of Antarctica’s islands has vanished due to a recent heat wave.

Record-breaking warm temperatures the continent experienced from Feb. 5 to Feb. 13 managed to melt 20 percent of snow on Eagle Island — an island located on the northwestern peninsula of Antarctica — in a matter of days, according to the NASA Earth Observatory.

Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College, told NASA’s publishing outlet that four inches of Eagle Island’s snowpack thawed away following a warm spell earlier this month, exposing much of the land beneath the island’s ice cap and creating pools of meltwater on its surface.

“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” said Pelto. “You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.”

Scientists experienced the hottest day ever recorded on the continent on Feb. 6 when the temperature at Antarctica’s Esperanza base reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius), surpassing the previous record of 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit (17.5 degrees Celsius) set on March 24, 2015 at the same base, according to Argentina’s national meteorological service (SMN).

Esperanza base in Antarctica | Adriana Tamayo/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty

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The SMN said that the nearby Marambio research station also logged the highest temperature of 57.3 degrees Fahrenheit (14.1 degrees Celsius) for the month of February, exceeding the previous record 56.8 degrees Fahrenheit (13.8 degrees Celsius) held on Feb. 24, 2013.

Argentina has been tracking temperatures from Esperanza since 1961, while records from Marambio date back to 1971.

The Antarctic Peninsula — the northwest tip near South America where the two Argentinian bases are located — is among the fastest warming areas in in the world, rising almost 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit (20.78 degrees Celsius) over the last 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet have also increased at least six-fold between 1979 and 2017, the organization said.

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Scientists determined 2019 was the second-hottest year on record in separate but similar reports by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and NASA released in January.

The records, which scientists began compiling in 1880, show that the last five years have been the planet’s warmest, with 2016 currently topping the list by just 0.07 of a degree Fahrenheit.

The years 2017, 2015 and 2018 followed closely behind in third, fourth and fifth place, respectively, NOAA reported.

Researchers were able to conclude that the average temperature across Earth in 2019 was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, making it the 43rd consecutive year where the land and water temperatures were above average, according to NOAA.