Although the full truth remains unknown, it is apparent that a massive hole—about as big as the state of Maine—has unexpectedly formed in Antarctica. Atmospheric physicist and professor at the University of Toronto Kent Moore has proclaimed this occurrence to be “quite remarkable. . . . It looks like you just punched a hole in the ice.”
It’s important to note that a polynya is a region of open water which is encompassed by sea ice, and also that it is utilized to depict a region of unfrozen sea within an ice pack; fascinatingly, the word polynya is a Russian word which describes a natural ice hole, and it was used by 19th C. polar explorers to describe navigable areas of ocean. Polynyas form in coastal areas of Antarctica, but this one is “deep in the ice pack”—so Moore concludes that it had to have been formed by way of other processes that human beings aren’t familiar with.
“The hole.” Source: MODIS-Aqua via NASA Worldview (ice contours via AMSR2 ASI via University of Bremen).
Moore also argues that, “This is hundreds of kilometres from the ice edge. If we didn’t have a satellite, we wouldn’t know it was there.” Indeed, human beings are fortunate to have the technology required to detect such occurrences, but the information will only be of use if we can effectively comprehend its significance. The hole appears to measure 80,000 k㎡, and it could last for decades or longer as past polynyas such as the Weddell Polynya (1974-1976) have.
However, modern technology has made great strides since then, so there is still genuine hope that we will be able to make progress toward understanding this development. Moreover, polynyas can freeze-over for decades and the re-open suddenly, which seems to be the case in this instance—just another factor that will have to be scrutinized and calculated: Since September 9th, “This is now the second year in a row it’s opened after 40 years of not being there. . . . We’re still trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Blue curves depict the ice edge; the polynya is the dark area of open water in the ice pack. Source: Modis-Aqua via Nasa worldview (ice contours via Amsr2 Asi via University of Bremen).
It’s difficult not to imagine that human-induced climate change could be to blame for the formation of the hole, but Moore points out that it is “premature” to come to large-scale conclusions like that so quickly. However, it is clear that the polynya will have a significant effect on the sea: “Once the sea ice melts back, you have this huge temperature contrast between the ocean and the atmosphere. . . . It can start driving convection.”
Moore explains that dense, cold water sinks to the bottom of the sea, whereas warmer water rises to the surface of the sea “which can keep the polynya open once it starts.” Furthermore, Moore is in the process of completing research that seeks to answer more questions, in part by utilizing observations from satellites and ocean robots. Again, “the amount of data we have is amazing”—much more than human beings have ever had access to before—so the potential for major (and beneficial) insights to be made is also greater than ever before.
*This content was inspired by an amazing article that can be found here.