NASA Reveals Shocking Ice Cap Melt in Antarctica After Record Heat

New images from Antarctica's record heat wave show the rapid greening of an island's ice cap.
February 21, 2020, 9:22pm
​Eagle Island Landsat images, Feb 2020. Image: Joshua Stevens/Landsat/USGS
Eagle Island Landsat images, Feb 2020. Image: Joshua Stevens/Landsat/USGS 

Two weeks ago, the temperature in Antarctica topped 18.3°C (64.9°F), making it the hottest weather on record for the icy southern continent. NASA has now released dramatic new images of the extensive ice melt caused by the recent heatwave, which ran from February 5 to 13.

Captured by NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, the before-and-after snapshots expose the rapid greening of Eagle Island, a landmass at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, over the course of nine days. The island is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Esperanza Base, where the record-breaking temperature was recorded.

As the warm temperatures persisted, the island’s ice cap swiftly retreated and meltwater collected in pools that covered roughly a square mile. The heatwave shaved off about four inches of snow, a quarter of which melted on February 6, the day that broke the temperature record. In total, NASA estimates that this one heatwave caused 20 percent of the region’s entire seasonal snow accumulation to melt on Eagle Island.

“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” said Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College who has been studying the heatwave, in a NASA post. “You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.”

The heatwave was particularly intense this year because of atypical weather patterns off the coast of South America. At the peak temperature, Antarctica was hotter than Orlando, Florida. As anomalous as that might sound, scientists expect it to become a more frequent occurrence due to the impacts of human-driven climate change.