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Uncovering Polynya: Research unravels 43-year-old mystery in Antarctica

Maud-Rise Polynya of September 2017 (the ice-free area near the yellow star) seen from space. Credit: Scar Atlas
by TR Pakistan

A study led by research scientist Diana Francis of NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has unraveled the four decade long mystery surrounding the occurrence of a mid-sea Polynya – a body of unfrozen ocean that appeared within a thick body of ice during Antarctica’s winter almost two years ago.

The Maud-Rise Polynya was initially spotted in Antarctica in 1974 and it reappeared in mid September 2017 at the same location. It was spotted in the center of an ice pack in Antarctica’s Lazarev Sea, causing researchers to question how this phenomenon occurred during Antarctica’s coldest, winter months when ice is at its thickest. Due to the difficulty in  accessing the remote location, scientists used a combination of satellite observations and reanalysis data to discover that cyclones (as intense as category 11 in the Beaufort Scale) and the strong winds that they carry over the ice pack cause ice to shift in opposite directions from the cyclone center, which leads to creation of the Polynya.

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At the time of the discovery, the Maud-Rise Polynya was approximately 9,500 square kilometers large (equivalent to the landmass of the state of Connecticut), and grew by over 740 percent to 800,000 square kilometers within a month. Eventually, the Polynya merged with the open ocean once the ice started to retreat at the beginning of the austral summer months. Prior to 2017, this phenomenon has only been known to have occurred in the 1970s when satellite observations started to become more commonly used, and has baffled scientists ever since.

“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,” said Francis in a press release. “Because of their large size, mid-sea Polynyas are capable of impacting the climate regionally and globally as they modify the oceanic circulation. It is important for us to identify the triggers for their occurrence to improve their representation in the models and their effects on climate.”

“Given the link between Polynya and cyclones we demonstrated in this study, it is speculated that Polynya events may become more frequent under warmer climate because these areas will be more exposed to more intense cyclones. Previous studies have shown that under warmer climate, polar cyclone activity will intensify and extratropical cyclones track will move toward Antarctica which could decrease the sea-ice extent and make Polynya areas, closer to the cyclones formation zone,” she added.

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