Recent major melting events in West Antarctica have raised concerns about a potential hydrofracturing and ice shelf instability. These events often share common forcings of surface melt-like anomalous radiative fluxes, turbulent heat fluxes and föhn winds. Using an atmospheric river detection algorithm developed for Antarctica together with surface melt datasets, we produced a climatology of atmospheric river-related surface melting around Antarctica and show that atmospheric rivers are associated with a large percentage of these surface melt events. Despite their rarity (around 12 events per year in West Antarctica), atmospheric rivers are associated with around 40% of the total summer meltwater generated across the Ross Ice Shelf to nearly 100% in the higher elevation Marie Byrd Land and 40–80% of the total winter meltwater generated on the Wilkins, Bach, George IV and Larsen B and C ice shelves. These events were all related to high-pressure blocking ridges that directed anomalous poleward moisture transport towards the continent. Major melt events in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet only occur about a couple times per decade, but a 1–2 °C warming and continued increase in atmospheric river activity could increase the melt frequency with consequences for ice shelf stability.
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The MAR data are publicly available from https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3362277. The daily surface melt satellite observations are publicly available at http://pp.ige-grenoble.fr/pageperso/picardgh/melting/
The scripts for the AR detection algorithms discussed in this paper are available at https://github.com/jwille45/Antarctic-lab. Additional versions of the algorithm will be made available as they are completed.
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This study is part of the PhD project of J.D.W. conducted at the Université Grenoble Alpes. We acknowledge support from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, projects ANR-14-CE01-0001 (ASUMA), ANR-16-CE01-0011 (EAIIST) and ANR-15-CE01-0015 (AC-AHC2). I.V.G. thanks FCT/MCTES for the financial support to CESAM (UID/AMB/50017/2019) through national funds. C.A. acknowledges support from the Fondation Albert 2 de Monaco under project Antarctic-Snow (2018–2020). C.A. performed the MAR simulations during her Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S.-FNRS) research fellowship. Computational resources were provided by the Consortium des Équipements de Calcul Intensif (CÉCI), funded by the F.R.S.-FNRS under grant no. 2.5020.11.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Wille, J.D., Favier, V., Dufour, A. et al. West Antarctic surface melt triggered by atmospheric rivers. Nat. Geosci. 12, 911–916 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0460-1