Sustainability Environment

A record-breaking heat wave changed Antarctica in 9 days

February's record heat wave on Eagle Island in Antarctica. Photo: NASA

Story at a glance

  • Antarctica was hit by a heat wave earlier this month, with temperatures reaching nearly 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Before and after images show a significant decrease in ice and snow on the island during that time.
  • The island experienced peak melt, about 1 inch on the day of the reported heat record, leading to a loss of 4 inches in total in just more than a week.

The heat wave that hit Antarctica earlier this month has caused one of the continent’s islands to lose nearly a quarter of its snow cover, according to NASA.

On Feb. 6, thermometers at the Esperanza Base on the northern tip of the Antarctica Peninsula marked a temperature of 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same temperature as Los Angeles that day, and likely a record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The heat wave arrived on Feb. 5 and continued until Feb. 13. 

NASA’s Earth Observatory released two new images showing the effects of February’s heat wave on Antarctica’s Eagle Island ice cap. Before and after images show a dramatic decrease in ice and snow, as large portions of the ground are visible and bright blue melted ponds can be seen at the center of the island. 

According to climate models, Eagle Island, which is only about 25 miles from the Esperanza research base, experienced peak melt, about 1 inch on the day of the reported heat record, causing a loss of 4 inches in a little more than a week. 

“About 20 percent of seasonal snow accumulation in the region melted in this one event on Eagle Island,” NASA said in a statement

“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” Mauri Pelot, 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.”

This comes after scientists in January made a worrying discovery under Antarctica’s “doomsday glacier.” Researchers for the first time discovered water below the Thwaites Glacier was more than 2 degrees above normal freezing temperature. 

If the glacier were to melt, it would drain a mass of water that is roughly the size of Great Britain, and its collapse would raise global sea levels by nearly 3 feet. 

Antarctica’s peninsula, the area pointing toward South America, is one of the fastest warming places on the planet. In just the past 50 years, temperatures have increased 5 degrees on the continent, and around 87 percent of glaciers along the peninsula’s west coast have receded during that time.