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Warm, dry winds may be straining Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf

Autumn melting could be a warning sign

WINDS OF CHANGE A satellite image from March 2016 shows the blue streaks of unseasonably late snowmelt on the Larsen C ice shelf that was caused by warm winds cascading down mountain slopes on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Turquoise pools of snowmelt on the Antarctic Peninsula, including on the Larsen C ice shelf, have recently been forming months after the continent’s peak summer melt. Bursts of warm, dry wind cascading over mountains that run along the peninsula are largely to blame, researchers report April 11 in Geophysical Research Letters. In this March 2016 satellite image, meltwater on part of Larsen C can be seen at the foothills of these mountains, just one case of this type of wind-induced melting.

Eastward-flowing winds sweeping across the Antarctic Peninsula sometimes pick up enough speed to surmount its mountain peaks. As the air rises and chills, its moisture condenses and, in the process, reheats the air. So when the now-dry air comes coursing down the leeway mountainside, it can be a balmy 20° Celsius.

Researchers “have told me they’ve been in a T-shirt” while standing in these winds, says cryospheric scientist Tri Datta of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

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