Mysterious hole the size of ME opens in Antarctica


"It looks like you just punched a hole in the ice", said atmospheric physicist Kent Moore, who teaches at the University of Toronto and works with the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modelling group at Princeton, to VICE. A smaller polynya was observed in the same area in the 1970s, but the exact scale of that fissure was not recorded.

At its largest the polynya measured 80,000 kilometres - making it larger than the Netherlands and roughly the same size as the USA state of Maine.

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

After closing back up, and remaining that way for roughly 40 years, it has re-opened. At its peak, the Weddell Polynya measured 31,000 square miles, which is larger than the Netherlands and almost the size of the state of Maine. Polynyas are commonly found in coastal regions of Antarctica, but this hole is far from the edge of the ice pack where the ice is much thicker, and it's the middle of winter in Antarctica. The polynya's occurrence confirms what scientists had previously calculated, and they want to know what made the hole reopen for two years in a row after four decades of not being there.

There's a name for this kind of feature-an area of open water completely enclosed by sea ice is known as a "polynya".

'We're still trying to figure out what's going on'. Interestingly, this isn't the first polynya to open up in this region. The study of the giant hole will allow researchers to validate their climate models, Moore said.

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

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"The Southern Ocean is strongly stratified".

Simulated temperature development in the area of the polynya is illustrated above.

Usually, a very cold but fresh layer of water covers a warmer and saltier layer of water, acting as insulation.

The cooling of the warmer ocean water when it reaches the surface may also have a broader impact on the ocean's temperature, but Moore says outside of local weather effects, scientists aren't sure what this polynya will mean for Antarctica's oceans and climate, and whether it is related to climate change.

The hole was discovered by researchers about a month ago.

'Global warming is not a linear process and happens on top of internal variability inherent to the climate system, ' Latif says. "The better we understand these natural processes, the better we can identify the anthropogenic impact on the climate system", said Professor Latif.