West Antarctic surface melt triggered by atmospheric rivers

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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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Fig. 1: The yearly percentage of six-hourly AR occurrences to make landfall detected in the multireanalysis dataset and points of interest.
Fig. 2: Surface melt associated with ARs and average AR life cycle on landfall.
Fig. 3: Atmospheric variables associated with an AR that contributed to the 25–30 May 2016 melt event.
Fig. 4: Corresponding conditions during the detected ARs in WAIS.

Data availability

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/

Code availability

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.

Author information

J.D.W. devised the study and led the writing of the manuscript using input from the co-authors. A.D. supplied the reanalysis datasets and aided in the development of the AR detection algorithm. I.V.G. advised on the physics of ARs, applied the second AR detection algorithm, analysed the data, plotted and provided descriptive text for Fig. 3 and Supplemetary Figs. 6, 9 and 10. C.A. performed the MAR simulations and advised on its implementation. V.F., J.T., and F.C. contributed to the development of the study and the preparation of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Jonathan D. Wille.

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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

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