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12 October 2017, 02:11 | Lucia Cruz
Mystery of the massive hole nearly the size of Maine that has opened up in the sea ice around Antarctica
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). This isn't the first time it's been spotted, having appeared previous year for a brief period as well, and long before that it was detected back in the 1970s. It's the largest polynya to open in the Weddell Sea since the 1970s.
The unusual ice-free area was first spotted in the 1970s in the midst of the harsh Antarctic winter, despite frigid temperatures - and now, 40 years after it closed, the so-called Weddell Polynya has returned. "If there were earlier occurrences, there is no record of them", said Willy Weeks, a retired sea ice geophysicist from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, while commenting at the time of the polynya's re-emergence in 2016.
Though Moore thinks marine animals could be using this hole to breathe, it is still unclear why it reopened after so many years, what long-term effect it could have on Antarctica's oceans and climate, or if it was triggered by climate change or any other process.
"It looks like you just punched a hole in the ice", atmospheric physicist Kent Moore, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, explained.
Known as polynyas or semipermanent area of open water in sea ice, this Weddell polynya is quite mysterious in terms of its origin. As per the report, the largest estimates of the hole's current size put it around 80,000 square kilometers. "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", Latif said. "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".
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One of the biggest reason as to why this polynya remains so mysterious is that it's quite hard to explore such areas. "It's just remarkable that this polynya went away for 40 years and then came back".
'Global warming is not a linear process and happens on top of internal variability inherent to the climate system, ' Latif says.
The hole was discovered by researchers about a month ago.
'The better we understand these natural processes, the better we can identify the anthropogenic impact on the climate system'.
What is clear is that climate change does have an impact on the structure of the Antarctic Ocean.
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