Winter in Antarctica: dark, cold, windy, and .... wet?? Measurements and modeling of extensive wintertime surface melt

Friday, December 15, 2017 - 08:00
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We know that increased surface melt, driven by atmospheric warming, contributed to the collapse of ice shelves as observed in the Antarctic Peninsula. This has induced grounded-ice acceleration and increased ice discharge. You may associate this surface melt with the austral summer season, with plenty of solar radiation driving the melt. In contrast, winter in Antarctica evokes images of darkness, snow, and cold. However, we will make you rethink this picture by presenting observations of frequent snow surface melt in winter, from a weather station located in a previously unsurveyed area of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. Peak intensities of this wintertime melt even exceed summertime values, and thermal satellite images show that large ponds of meltwater are formed at the surface in the pitch-dark Antarctic winter. Obviously, we wanted to find out what could drive these strong melt events if it's not the sun. It turns out that these multi-day melt events occur when warm and dry föhn winds descend from the Antarctic Peninsula mountains. Simulations with a high-resolution weather model confirm that these winds generate turbulent fluxes of sensible heat, leading to melt fluxes in excess of 200 W m-2. In 2015 and 2016, about 23% of the annual melt was produced in winter. We use satellite radar to show that winter melt occurs on many more places in the Antarctic Peninsula. It happens every year, although in some years the melting is much more widespread than in others. We think that wintertime melt matters as its refreezing warms the snow and increases snow density. In this way, winter melt preconditions the ice shelf for more extensive surface drainage, potentially leading to meltwater-driven instability.

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