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Mysterious and Monstrous Hole Appears in Antarctic Ice, Perplexing Scientists

11 October 2017, 11:36 | Edward Lowe

Mysterious and Monstrous Hole Appears in Antarctic Ice, Perplexing Scientists

Mysterious and Monstrous Hole Appears in Antarctic Ice, Perplexing Scientists

A giant hole has opened up in Antarctica that could possibly be as big as the state of ME (91,646 km²) and Lake Superior (82,103 km²). The hole, comparable in size to Austria or ME, appeared without warning and without any apparent reason.

Known as a polynia, the observed phenomenon occurs when open ocean water is surrounded by solid sea ice, leading to changes in the surrounding ice and below.

Holes form in Antarctica all the time.

Although winter is in full swing right now in Antarctica, a large swath of water in the Weddell sea is ice-free. Instead, it's hundreds of miles inland.

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Polynyas usually form in Antarctica's coastal and scientists are trying to figure out why this one is so "deep in the ice pack", as atmospheric physicist Kent Moore told Motherboard.

The hole has an area of approximately 80,000 square kilometers (30,000 square miles), and is as large as Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes of North America, or the state of Maine. It's not clear at this point if the ice hole is influenced in any way by climate change. Its reappearance about a month ago marks the second consecutive year for the Weddell Sea polynya. However, the hole went largely unstudied due to limitations of observational instruments in the 1970s.

Still, it's unclear how often the Weddell Polynya re-emerges, and how long it will linger now that it's opened back up.

After closing back up, and remaining that way for roughly 40 years, it has re-opened. "If we didn't have a satellite, we wouldn't know it was there", Moore added.

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Moore, who is also a member of Princeton University's Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modelling project (SOCCOM), said that climatologists are excited for another opportunity to study the mysterious hole in the ice."Compared to 40 years ago, the amount of data we have is wonderful", he said. Scientists can not explain why the mystery hole has appeared again after 40-years, but they have better technology to study it this time around.

However, the polynya will affect oceans worldwide. "Once the sea ice melts back, you have this huge temperature contrast between the ocean and the atmosphere", said Moore explained.

The unusual hole measured 80,000 km at its peak, and it will have a significant impact on the oceans by driving convection. "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". "The better we understand these natural processes, the better we can identify the anthropogenic impact on the climate system", said Professor Latif.

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