Scientists have reported a massive melting event in West Antarctica, which they warn could be a sign of future problems if climate change is not addressed.
An Area The Size of Texas
Last year, scientists reported that a major melting event occurred in West Antarctica in the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the largest ice shelf on the planet. The event was caused by warmer air that was brought about by last year's El Niño and resulted in an area of melted water that was larger than the state of Texas. In some parts of the Ross Ice Shelf, it took as long as 15 days for the water to freeze over.
While the water did eventually freeze, this occurrence was still troubling for scientists due to the fact that rain could contribute to the already-fragile state of West Antarctica. Rising ocean temperatures have already caused melting to occur in parts of the Ross Ice Shelf.
David Bromwich, a researcher at Ohio State University and one of the study's authors, warned that the issue might get worse in the future. Currently, the main problem facing Antarctica's ice shelves comes from warming ocean waters, which are slowly eroding the foundations of the ice shelves. In the future, increased rainfall could eat away at the surface of the ice shelves, pressuring them from two angles.
Rain In Antarctica
The team, which was from Ohio State, was not present in Antarctica during the time the melting event occurred but had set up a remote monitoring station in West Antarctica. The station alerted the team to the changes in the atmosphere and the presence of rain clouds. Satellite imagery then revealed that a large part of the Ross Ice Shelf had been covered in water. Some of it appeared to be the result of increased temperatures, but there was also evidence of rainfall, which, considering Antarctica is a desert, is very rare.
Melting Could Be The End Of Ice Shelves
In this particular case, there was no harm done because the water eventually refroze, but scientists are concerned because such melting events could become more common in the future. Due to climate change, El Niño could occur with increasing regularity that may lead to future melt events.
"Melting is thought to be death to ice shelves," said Columbia University's Robin Bell. "This is the first well-documented melt event where we can see how it happened."