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NASA: Antarctic Snowmelt Increasing

Satellite imagery shows the number of Antarctic melting days for the 2004 - 2005 season. Areas where melting occurred for a greater number of days are indicated in increasingly darker red. Credit: NASA/Rob Simmon

Antarctic snow has been melting farther inland and at higher altitudes over the past 20 years, NASA scientists announced today.

With a surface size about 1.5 times the size of the United States, Antarctica contains 90 percent of the Earth's fresh water, making it the largest potential source of sea level rise from global warming.

Unlike the well-documented and rapid Arctic meltdown, snow melt in Antarctica has been very limited because even summer temperatures rarely rise above freezing.

But satellite data collected between 1987 and 2006 showed snowmelt in some unlikely places in 2005—as far inland as 500 miles from the coast and as high as 1.2 miles above sea level in the Transantarctic Mountains. This data record, longer than those previously studied, provides confirmation of earlier reports of unusual melting in 2005.

The data also showed increased persistent snowmelt on the Ross Ice Shelf, in terms of both the area affected and the duration of the melt. (Persistent snowmelt is defined as melting that occurs for at least three days or for one consecutive day and night.)

The NASA scientists who examined the data suspect that Earth's rising temperatures may be to blame for the unusual melting patterns.

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