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Researchers Wonder Why a Giant Hole Keeps Opening Up in Antarctica

12 October 2017

A Maine-sized hole has opened up in Antarctica's Weddell Sea and scientists aren't completely sure why. "It's just remarkable that this polynya went away for 40 years and then came back".

According to VICE, a polynya occurred in the same location in 1970s.

Understanding why such a enormous hole has suddenly opened up in Antarctica that is already undergoing huge changes will certainly play a key role in fathoming larger systems in action.

At its peak, the Weddell Polynya measured a staggering 80,000 square kilometers (roughly 31,000 square miles).

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"It looks like you just punched a hole in the ice", atmospheric physicist Kent Moore, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, explained.

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.

As scientists continue to hone their climate models and flawless their predictions, they're getting closer to being able to accurately simulate the exact process at work, but a full explanation may still be years away. 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.

'We're still trying to figure out what's going on'.

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"While smaller and shorter-lived than the 1970s Weddell polynya, it's still an unusual and important phenomenon", Alek Petty, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in 2016 when the polynya appeared.

Scientific reference: Mojib Latif et al, Southern Ocean Decadal Variability and Predictability, Current Climate Change Reports (2017).

'A very cold but relatively fresh water layer covers a much warmer and saltier water mass, thus acting as an insulating layer. "This is like opening a pressure relief valve - the ocean then releases a surplus of heat to the atmosphere for several consecutive winters until the heat reservoir is exhausted", said Prof. In certain conditions, however, the warm water can rise to the surface, melting the ice. Now that it is back, scientists have more sophisticated resources that enable them to improve their observations.

While Moore warns that it's too soon to blame global warming, other scientists note the differences between climate change caused by human activities and natural changes to the climate system.

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'The better we understand these natural processes, the better we can identify the anthropogenic impact on the climate system'.

Researchers Wonder Why a Giant Hole Keeps Opening Up in Antarctica