From: KU Leuven
Published January 22, 2015 08:47 AM

Atmospheric Rivers Add to Antarctica's Ice Sheets

Extreme weather phenomena called atmospheric rivers were behind intense snowstorms recorded in 2009 and 2011 in East Antarctica. The resulting snow accumulation partly offset recent ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet, report researchers from KU Leuven.   

Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow water vapour plumes stretching thousands of kilometres across the sky over vast ocean areas. They are capable of rapidly transporting large amounts of moisture around the globe and can cause devastating precipitation when they hit coastal areas.

Although atmospheric rivers are notorious for their flood-inducing impact in Europe and the Americas, their importance for Earth’s polar climate – and for global sea levels – is only now coming to light.

Princess Elisabeth

In this study, an international team of researchers led by Irina Gorodetskaya of KU Leuven’s Regional Climate Studies research group used a combination of advanced modelling techniques and data collected at Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth polar research station in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land to produce the first ever in-depth look at how atmospheric rivers affect precipitation in Antarctica.

The researchers studied two particular instances of heavy snowfall in the East Antarctic region in detail, one in May 2009 and another in February 2011, and found that both were caused by atmospheric rivers slamming into the East Antarctic coast.   

The Princess Elisabeth polar research station recorded snow accumulation equivalent to up to 5 centimetres of water for each of these weather events, good for 22 per cent of the total annual snow accumulation in those years.

The findings point to atmospheric rivers’ impressive snow-producing power. “When we looked at all the extreme weather events that took place during 2009 and 2011, we found that the nine atmospheric rivers that hit East Antarctica in those years accounted for 80 per cent of the exceptional snow accumulation at Princess Elisabeth station,” says Irina Gorodetskaya.

Diminishing ice sheet

And this can have important consequences for Antarctica’s diminishing ice sheet. “There is a need to understand how the flow of ice within Antarctica’s ice sheet responds to warming and gain insight in atmospheric processes, cloud formation and snowfall,” adds Nicole Van Lipzig, co-author of the study and professor of geography at KU Leuven.

A separate study found that the Antarctic ice sheet has lost substantial mass in the last two decades – at an average rate of about 68 gigatons per year during the period 1992-2011.

Continue reading at KU Leuven.

Antarctica ice sheet image via Shutterstock.

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