It’s winter in Antarctica, and a group of scientists are doing their very best to study the frozen wasteland. Conditions are obviously frightful, but these researchers are equipped with some sophisticated technology to help them out. It’s thanks to these tools and gizmos, in fact, that they notice something extraordinary. A colossal breach has opened up in the frozen sea ice, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a very long time.
This enormous hole in the ice isn’t the sort of discovery that comes along very often. We’re talking about a space of about 30,000 square miles, which is pretty difficult to imagine in our heads. So, for a sense of scale, we can say that this is broadly similar to the size of Maine.
The chasm is a fascinating thing to behold for the scientists, but they’re definitely not the only ones to have noticed it. Despite the extreme conditions, sea mammals such as whales and seals are known to live in the area. These creatures need to come up for air from time to time, so this hole was likely a welcome appearance.
For the human researchers, though, the void represents something of an unexpected mystery. How is it that so much ice managed to simply disappear in the midst of the long Antarctic winter? This is a time of year, after all, in which the continent barely ever sees the sun.
It’s generally a rarity for Antarctic researchers to find chasms like this during winter, especially ones of this size. But the year before this hole was noted, another one had been found, too. So, are these things forming more frequently nowadays? And if that’s the case, what if anything will this mean for the continent and the world more generally?
It’s difficult to think of Antarctica in the same way as we think of the rest of the planet. It’s so remote, after all, a vast and icy place that seems far removed from the rest of us. It can technically be described as a desert, as neither rain nor snow falls very often there.
Yet Antarctica is a vital part of our world, and its wellbeing has been a concern for the scientific community for quite some time now. About half a century ago, for instance, experts started to notice that the ozone layer above the continent was breaking down. This was a significant development, as this section of the planet’s atmosphere is responsible for protecting us from ultraviolet radiation.
By 1985 it had become clear to some experts that there was a problem with the layer of ozone above Antarctica. A so-called “ozone hole” had appeared in the skies above the continent, meaning that more UV rays were able to hit the planet’s surface. This puncture, it was noted, could vary in size from one period to the next.
UV radiation can be really damaging to both flora and fauna, but Antarctica is generally lacking in both. Still, that doesn’t mean living things are immune to the potential damage that can be inflicted by Antarctica’s ozone hole. Australia and New Zealand aren’t terribly far from the frozen continent, and it’s possible that their inhabitants could be affected.
Thankfully, the world took note of the dangers posed by the ozone hole. Having realized that chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were largely responsible, a treaty was drawn up to prohibit these substances. At its earliest stages, this agreement involved 46 nations, but this number has since risen to almost 200.
This treaty has been successful, and the signs are good that the ozone layer will one day be restored. Having said that, the results won’t entirely be seen for a while yet. As ozone expert Pieternel Levelt explained in a NASA statement in 2012, “We still have an ozone hole at the South Pole, but we expect that it will recover by 2050 to 2070.”
This is undoubtedly good news, but Antarctica has other threats to deal with, too. The first thing that might spring to mind, naturally, is climate change. The effects of this aren’t being felt equally all over the continent, given that it’s so vast. But in certain areas, global warming is already wreaking havoc.
Throughout Antarctica itself, the limited number of living things actually found there are being thrust into trouble. Ecosystems are delicate things, so when one species is threatened, there are inevitably consequences for another. In Antarctica, melting ice has led to less algae, which in turn has impacted the krill that feed on it.
From there, the Adélie penguins that rely on krill for food have also suffered. And to make things worse, the parts of Antarctica where the species has tended to nest have experienced different sorts of weather in recent times. Emperor penguins, meanwhile, are also in a precarious position these days.
The threat to Antarctica’s native species is very real, but the implications of the continent’s ice melting could be even more severe globally. You see, Antarctica plays a very important role in heat regulation across the entire planet. As these systems alter and eventually even break down, the consequences will be felt across the whole world.
Perhaps the most worrying scenario to imagine is the possibility of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melting. As you might expect, this part of the continent is made up of a huge amount of ice. And if this were to thaw, then the oceans of the Earth would see absolutely immense rises.
So, climate change is a real problem for Antarctica – and, by extension, for the rest of the world, too. The potential issues that can arise from global warming are severe, but can we blame it for the appearance of that massive chasm in the ice in 2017? Well, it turns out that it’s not quite as simple as that.
The hole was discovered in the Lazarev Sea back in the middle of September 2017, catching experts by surprise. September is a winter month in Antarctica, so the ice present in the continent should be at its strongest. But somehow this enormous section had disappeared, which led to questions being asked.
The gap in the ice was discovered by a group of scientists, some from the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) Project and others hailing from the University of Toronto. These people made use of a robotic float – which can function below ice – in making their discovery. After the device found this gap, the experts then analyzed satellite imagery of the area to confirm the discovery.
Similar in size to the state of Maine at one stage, at its greatest extent this colossal hole measured roughly 30,000 square miles in surface area. Such a vast expanse of inexplicably melted ice was of great interest to scientists, as illustrated by the University of Toronto physics professor Kent Moore’s reaction. Speaking to National Geographic magazine in 2017, he said, “In the depths of winter, for more than a month, we’ve had this area of open water.”
The winter period in Antarctica is generally a time in which ice reigns, with about 7 million square miles of marine ice being frozen over. To give you some perspective, that’s about twice the size of the continental United States. But as we can see from the hole discovered in the Lazarev Sea, sometimes breaches can appear in this icy layer.
Such chasms are known to the scientific community as “polynyas,” and they’ve been of great interest for decades now. After all, it seems a little strange that such a vast amount of ice can melt during Antarctica’s winter months. Conditions should be at their coldest during this time of year.
This particular polynya had appeared over an underwater ridge called the Maud Rise, so the gap itself became known as the Maud Rise polynya. After its discovery, the feature started to expand at a rapid rate. Just a month later, in fact, the void had grown to more than eight times its initial size.
As Antarctica entered into the summertime, the ice surrounding the Maud Rise polynya started to melt. After a while, then, the feature disappeared as it blended with the liquid seas of the area. It had been a fascinating anomaly for scientists to pore over, but it wasn’t totally without precedent.
If we look back several decades to the year 1974, an even bigger polynya had been discovered. This was the Weddell polynya, which had been roughly similar in size to Oregon. This hole had appeared in winter that year, before disappearing again in summer. This cycle then repeated for a couple of years after that, with the feature seemingly disappearing for good in 1976.
Polynyas are extremely rare features, and scientists don’t often get the opportunity to observe and study them. But in 2016 – the year before the Maud Rise polynya showed up – a NASA satellite observed one appearing once again in the Weddell Sea. Naturally, this was a source of tremendous interest for experts hoping to understand how and why they exist.
As NASA sea ice specialist Alek Petty remarked in a statement, “While smaller and shorter-lived than the 1970s Weddell polynya, it’s still an unusual and important phenomenon. It allows a significant amount of heat to escape to the winter atmosphere, where air temperatures are thought to hover around [-4 °F].”
Polynyas such as the ones that appeared in the Weddell Sea in the ’70s and in 2016 can usually be attributed to either persistent air circulation patterns above the frozen ocean, or currents within it. Once opened, a self-sustaining cycle develops. Essentially, warmer water rises from the sea, releases heat into the atmosphere, then descends as it cools, replaced by new warmer water from below. This process prevents new ice from forming.
While understanding the broad processes behind polynyas of this kind is one thing, questions still remain. In a statement released by NASA’s Earth Observatory, a former geophysicist from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks succinctly summed this problem up. As Willy Weeks put it, “Why was the Weddell polynya present in the 1970s, and then absent until its recent reappearance?”
Weeks went on, “Did the Weddell polynya occur before 1970, and we are looking at a periodic process that shows itself about every 40 years? If there were earlier occurrences, there is no record of them.” These questions are tough to answer, but 2017’s Maud Rise polynya could help to solve them.
There were several differences between the Maud Rise polynya that appeared in 2017 and the Weddell one that showed up the year before. The polynya from 2016, for instance, was smaller, and it disappeared after a shorter amount of time. That was because the 2017 one was created by a more significant heat cycle.
Experts aren’t quite sure what the Maud Rise polynya’s significance is for Antarctica as a whole. Will it have an impact on the continent’s climate? Did it show up because of the impact of global warming? Ultimately, scientists just don’t know for sure. More work will be necessary before these riddles can be properly solved.
Having said that, one prominent expert has expressed their opinion that polynyas do, in fact, have an impact on the environment. This person is Diana Francis, a researcher with New York University Abu Dhabi. It was Francis who led the investigation into the Maud Rise polynya, so she’s certainly in a strong position to offer her thoughts on its implications.
Speaking in a statement, Francis remarked, “Once opened, the polynya works like a window through the sea-ice, transferring huge amounts of energy during winter between the ocean and the atmosphere. Because of their large size, mid-sea polynyas are capable of impacting the climate regionally and globally as they modify the oceanic circulation.”
Francis went on to highlight the importance of figuring out what exactly causes polynyas to emerge. Though we might understand the actions behind them, the reason that these processes get underway are still unknown. She said, “It is important for us to identify the triggers for their occurrence to improve their representation in the models and their effects on climate.”
Though more study will be needed to confirm it, a theory behind these “triggers” has been put forward. Basically, it suggests that significant cyclones are behind the emergence of polynyas. As Francis herself explained, “[Cyclonic winds] drag the floating sea ice in opposite directions around the cyclone center, creating the opening.”
After this opening has appeared in the ice, then, both the ocean and the atmosphere keep it around. Francis explained, “Once the area is free of ice, ocean dynamics bring warmer water near the surface and prevent the formation of new ice and sustain the polynya over [a] longer period of time.”
If cyclones are responsible for triggering the emergence of polynyas, then we can say that global warming may increase their frequency in the years to come. That’s because more cyclones can be expected in Antarctica as the climate heats up. And more to the point, they may be stronger, too.
Francis explained, “It is speculated that polynya events may become more frequent… because these areas will be more exposed to more intense cyclones. Previous studies have shown that under warmer climate [conditions], polar cyclone activity will intensify and [the] extratropical cyclones[‘] track will move toward Antarctica, which could decrease the sea-ice extent and make polynya areas, closer to the cyclones formation zone.”
Ultimately, more work will be necessary to understand polynyas and what they mean for the future of Antarctica. Scientists will have to use all the methods and technologies at their disposal, with pictures from space potentially playing a vital role. As Francis remarked, “Satellite images are a powerful tool to help us understand such a complex system where interactions between atmosphere-ice-ocean take on full meaning.”