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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.
In a recent 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.
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