The images show Eagle Island on the northeastern peninsula of the icy continent at the start and end of this month’s Antarctic heat wave. By the end of the nine-day heat event, much of the land beneath the island’s ice cap was exposed, and pools of meltwater opened up on its surface.
In just over a week, 4 inches of Eagle Island’s snowpack melted — that’s about 20% of the island’s total seasonal snow accumulation, NASA’s Earth Observatory said.
“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” Mauri Pelto, a geologist at Nichols College in Massachusetts, told NASA’s Earth Observatory. “You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.”
A perfect storm of conditions for a heat wave
As Pelot noted, melt events like this are quite rare for Antarctica, even during the summer. It’s one of the coldest places on Earth.
This heat wave was the result of sustained high temperatures, he said, which almost never occurred on the continent until the 21st century. It’s the kind of weather event that grows increasingly common as global temperatures rise.
This month, high pressure over Cape Horn in Chile’s archipelago allowed warm temperatures to build up and travel. Antarctica’s northernmost peninsula is typically protected from these high temperatures due to strong winds that cross the Southern Hemisphere, but those winds were unusually weak and couldn’t stop the high temperatures from penetrating the continent’s northern tip, NASA reported.