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A Maine-Sized Hole Has Opened up in Antarctica's Ice Blanket

13 October 2017
A Maine-Sized Hole Has Opened up in Antarctica's Ice Blanket

Researchers are stumped by the appearance of the new hole because it is "deep in the ice pack", Kent Moore, an atmospheric physicist at University of Toronto Mississauga, told the website. This gaping polynya, which measures an area equivalent to the Netherlands, opened right in the middle of a sea which would have otherwise been completely covered in thick ice. However, it disappeared for several decades before showing back up, throwing a huge kink in many scientific explanations for its existence. In addition, scientists hope that in the near future it will be possible to simulate such a system with the help of computer simulation.

Scientists are now working to understand how often the massive hole appears, and how climate change could affect it.

A huge hole almost the size of the state of ME has opened up in the thick sea ice blanketing Antarctica's Weddell Sea. That's a fairly straightforward explanation, but it doesn't fully address the odd timing of the hole, including its 40-year absence and seemingly spontaneous rebirth. The Weddell Sea polynya is like "an oasis" for Antarctic sea mammals, says scientist Kent Moore. "We're still trying to figure out what's going on", Moore said.

It's larger than The Netherlands, and almost the size of Lake Superior.

A polynya typically forms farther offshore, driven by the upwelling of warm water according to NASA.

The latest technology allows them to study the polynya even if their access to the site itself in the Southern Ocean is insufficient. "Denser, colder water sinks to the bottom of the ocean, while warmer water comes to the surface, which can keep the polynia open once it starts".

Simulated temperature development in the area of the polynya is illustrated above. Although polynyas occur regularly in the Arctic and the Antarctic, they rarely occur in the open ocean. Due to higher precipitation levels in the region and melting ice, the surface is expected to decouple from deeper water layers.

Climate change, which is impacting Antarctica and the rest of the world, is possibly responsible for this mysterious hole, but Moore said that blaming global warming for this phenomenon is premature. "The better we understand these natural processes, the better we can identify the anthropogenic impact on the climate system", Latif said.