Mysterious hole the size of ME opens in Antarctica

The Weddell Sea polynya on Aug. 14 2016 by NASA’s Aqua satellite. (Joshua Stevens  NASA Earth Observatory

The Weddell Sea polynya on Aug. 14 2016 by NASA’s Aqua satellite. (Joshua Stevens NASA Earth Observatory

Scientists have discovered a hole as big as the state of ME or Lake Superior in the frozen ice of Antarctica's Weddell Sea, according to a report in the National Geographic. The study of the giant hole will allow researchers to validate their climate models, Moore said.

Areas of open water enveloped by ice, such as this hole are known as polynias and are formed in the coastal areas of Antarctica.

'It looks like you just punched a hole in the ice, ' atmospheric physicist Kent Moore, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told Motherboard. 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. "If we didn't have a satellite, we wouldn't know it was there", Moore added.

However, the recently discovered polynya is "deep in the ice pack", which is rather unusual, Moore said.

The Weddell Sea polynya went away for four decades, until it reopened previous year for a few weeks. The phenomenon was previously observed in the same location in the 1970s when satellite imaging was barely making its first baby steps.

The hole, which is called a polynya, is incredibly puzzling because of its odd behavior. Due to higher precipitation levels in the region and melting ice, the surface is expected to decouple from deeper water layers. When the warmer water cools, on contact with the frigid temperatures in the atmosphere, it sinks.

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But, with new observations using technology far more advanced than that available when it first appeared 40 years ago, they're hoping to uncover some answers.

A robotic float has been deployed to study the polynya's measurements, which lies hundreds of kilometers from the ice edge.

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.

Lead Image: Winter sea ice blankets the Weddell Sea around Antarctica with massive extra-tropical cyclones hovering over the Southern Ocean in this satellite image from September 25, 2017.

A "polynya" is a large ice-free area that develops in an otherwise frozen sea; the features are commonly seen in both the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.

"We don't really understand the long-term impacts this polynya will have", he says.

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