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crisis interventions

Saving Antarctic Ice | Part 4 - East Antarctica's Declining Stability And A Record Heat Wave

What are Crisis Interventions?These are brief undertakings where Kyrios takes action to avert or lessen the severity of a disaster in a bid to reduce loss of lives and destruction.

Note: This is part of a crisis intervention - Saving Antarctic Ice


Overview

Welcome to our fourth update on Kyrios’ year-long intervention to save Antarctica’s ice from melting. In our previous video, we showed how climate change is driving rapid changes to the West Antarctic ice sheet, with dire consequences for global sea levels. In this update, we’ll look across to East Antarctica, which has been gaining attention in recent years due to increasing changes to its ice sheet. During March 2022, an unexpected weather phenomenon known as an atmospheric river led to a heat wave which raised surface temperatures by between 20 to 40 degrees celsius across East Antarctica. Although there was significant ice melt, 69 gigatons of ice was also deposited inland. Meanwhile during this period, the Conger ice shelf which is about the size of Rome, also completely disintegrated. There were also smaller calving events of the Totten glacier and Glenzer ice shelf, both of which are also located in East Antarctica.

As part of the ongoing intervention to protect and restore Antarctica’s ice, Kyrios stepped in to dissipate the heat and shift the atmospheric river northwards away from Antarctica.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet

The East Antarctic ice sheet is much larger than the West Antarctic ice sheet, comprising two-thirds of the Antarctica continent. In comparison to the West Antarctic ice sheet, the East Antarctic ice sheet contains ten times more ice. There is so much ice that the majority of East Antarctica is covered by thick layers of ice, with some parts reaching 4600m, concealing even whole mountains underneath it. If all this ice melted, it would raise sea levels by 53 metres.

The climate in East Antarctica, similar to the rest of Antarctica, is also very cold. Particularly at Dome C, temperatures as low as -85°C have been recorded. The low temperatures are a result of a polar vortex above the continent which has been strengthening in recent years, as well as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which helps to keep out the warm water in the higher latitudes. Together with the topography and atmospheric conditions around the continent, Antarctica as a whole receives very low amounts of precipitation. For instance, over the continent margins, katabatic winds lead to the sublimation of snowfall, further reducing precipitation in the lower atmosphere. As such, despite the presence of so much freshwater ice, Antarctica is very much like the Sahara desert, with precipitation just 50mm on average across much of its interior. In addition, the little precipitation that falls is mostly snow along the coastal regions. During summer along the coastal regions when temperatures are higher, precipitation would also fall as rain.

Although the West Antarctic ice sheet is mostly beneath sea level, the majority of the East Antarctic ice sheet is grounded above sea level. Having its base mostly above sea level means it should keep glaciers in the East Antarctic ice sheet relatively safe from warm water intrusion and melting. As such, the East Antarctic ice sheet has historically been regarded by scientists to be more stable and thus been traditionally understudied. As recently as 2017, it was known to also be adding ice mass, to the tune of an estimated 5 billion tons each year since 1992.

East Antarctica Vulnerable To Climate Change

Fast forward to today, and it’s a different situation which underscores the importance of Kyrios’ intervention in Antarctica. East Antarctica is now undergoing rapid changes, surprising even researchers. Scientists have now discovered that East Antarctica is more vulnerable to melting than once thought. This is driven by changes to the atmospheric conditions and ocean circulation changes as a result of climate change.

As climate change leads to higher temperatures and a greater contrast in temperature between Antarctica and the rest of the world, it is shifting wind patterns around Antarctica, causing a more positive Southern Annular Mode which intensifies polar winds that are responsible for the upwelling of warmer, salty deep ocean waters. Scientists expect the circular water current known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the Southern Ocean which flows clockwise from west to east, to carry more warm water from the oceanic depths to begin encroaching into East Antarctica’s ice. This is similar to how warm waters drive the accelerated melting of glaciers in West Antarctica, and evidence shows that this is already happening in East Antarctica.

Totten Glacier, Moscow University Ice Shelf and most glaciers in Wilkes Land, which are part of the East Antarctic ice sheet, are below sea level and examples of where ocean heat flux have already been observed to be changing the ice dynamics leading to ice shelf thinning. Studies have also shown that ice mass loss in Wilkes Land, which holds more ice than West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula combined, has been accelerating and steadily contributing to sea level rise for 40 years, and sea level rise due to Wilkes Land was responsible for more than 30% of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise.

Heat Wave Due To Atmospheric River Event

Left image: Atmospheric River as observed at near-sea level on based on 3-hour precipitation accumulation dataset. Right image: Heat wave in East Antarctica region driving warmer temperatures at near-sea level on . Source: GFS / NCEP / US National Weather Service

In a related episode that caught scientists by surprise, a sudden heat wave in March 2022 over the Wilkes Land as a result of an atmospheric river led to temperatures in that region to rise by an unprecedented 40 degrees celsius. Atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of intense moisture that can cause large localised snowfall and melting events. They occur around the world, but are rarer in Antarctica, occurring only a few days per year generally in the coastal regions. This atmospheric river led to an intense amount of rainfall, potentially causing a significant melt event in the area. The high levels of moisture from the atmospheric river also retained large amounts of heat, all while radiating heat towards the surface. A heat dome also moved in at the same time, preventing moisture and heat from escaping. This heat dome was exceptionally intense, at five standard deviations above normal, which explains why temperatures rose so high as a result. The temperature in Vostok, near the centre of the East Antarctic ice sheet, rose from -53°C to -17.7°C. This was 15°C higher than the previous monthly record since record keeping began 65 years ago. A new record high was also registered in Concordia station of -12°C, 40°C above seasonal normals. Kyrios was alerted to this event on 19 March 2022, and immediately began to shift the atmospheric river towards the mid-latitudes away from the Antarctica continent.

Temperature readings per hour at Concordia Station, Antarctica. A new heat record was broken at Concordia Station, at an altitude of more than 3200 meters and in the heart of the Antarctic continent on . Source: CNRS-UCA-OCA

Unfortunately during the same period, Conger Glacier’s ice shelf also completely collapsed, accelerating ice flow into the sea from the glacier. It’s unknown yet if the heat wave pushed the ice shelf past the tipping point. However, this heat wave was so extreme and previously thought impossible that it has caught the attention of researchers. Perhaps more will be known in the coming months and years of this event.

Conger ice shelf completely disintegrates within a span of two weeks. Source: NASA Worldview

Antarctic Sea Ice Extent Smallest On Record

This year (2022), Antarctica’s sea ice also just shrank to its smallest on record, at 1.92 million square kilometres, falling below 2 million square kilometres for the first time in 43 years of satellite observations. The last record low was in 2017 when sea ice extent reached 2.11 million square kilometres. Sea ice is important because it helps isolate the sea water from surface wind, reducing the transfer of energy between winds and ocean currents. This results in weaker ocean currents that reduce the upwelling of warm deep ocean water linked to glacier ice melt.

La Niña Driving Cooler Ocean Waters

Despite these negative impacts to Antarctica’s ice, there are some positive developments. Since the end of summer in 2020, the El Niño Southern Oscillation has been in the La Niña phase. There are signs that La Niña may continue in its third straight year. Although it has some negative effects of more tornadoes and a harsher Atlantic hurricane season, La Niña leads to lower cooler-than-normal ocean waters in the tropical Pacific. This has helped somewhat lower the average global temperature over the last year or two. 2021 was the sixth hottest year on record, but if it weren’t for La Niña, the year’s warmth almost certainly would have ranked higher.

During a La Niña event, cold water masses extend up the coast of South America and the central equatorial Pacific. This cold water then gets pulled into a water mass known as the Circumpolar Deep Water, which is currently responsible for glacier ice melt as its saltier, warm waters would rise and encroach beneath the glaciers. These cold water masses could also potentially lower the temperatures of the Circumpolar Deep Water, similar to the outcome of Kyrios’ intervention in the Arctic covered in our previous Part 3 update. Consequently, from observations taken in January 2012 at the Pine Island Glacier during a La Niña event, this mass of cold water was found to be thick enough to keep the base of the glacier cool, preventing excessive melting and resulting in the lowest summer melting at half the levels compared to January 2010. In addition, a separate study found that ice shelves of West Antarctica gain mass during a La Niña event. The continued La Niña phase therefore bodes well for Antarctica’s ice.

Conclusion

Kyrios’ Antarctic ice intervention is scheduled to last a year, from 20 Nov 2021 to the end of November 2022. Kyrios had mentioned at the start that the intervention is an extremely complex one as it requires modifications to the atmospheric conditions, deep ocean waters and even changes from within Earth. The Arctic ice intervention which began earlier on 23 August 2021 also helped to set the foundation for bringing about the necessary conditions needed to preserve and restore Antarctica’s ice.

To date, we can already witness some of the positive effects of Kyrios’ intervention based on NASA’s GRACE satellite measurement of Antarctica ice mass. There is reason for us to believe that with Kyrios’ help, there is a glimmer of hope that Antarctic ice can be saved. Stay tuned for our next update where we’ll reveal the data, and show you the effects of Kyrios’ intervention on Antarctic ice!

In the meantime, follow us on Twitter @Kyrios_Earth and Instagram @Kyrios_EarthHealer. If you have questions, are interested in contributing, or wish to report adverse weather events that may impact Antarctica’s ice, please contact us.


For more information on Kyrios’ climate crisis interventions, please go here. If you have questions, feel free to ask them here.

This article was written in May 2022, but only published on 16 December 2022.

Crisis Interventions

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