Scientists Are Looking Into A Giant Hole That's Opened Up In Antarctica

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A gaping ice hole, stretching to roughly the size of Belgium (or Maryland, if you're more familiar with the sizes of American states), has been discovered in the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. The hole was first spotted thanks to satellite images covering the region and scientists are searching to find an answer as to why exactly it has appeared.

The Weddell Polynya, September 25, 2017. (Photo: Earthdata/Nasa)

A rare phenomenon, this type of open water space was first observed on the ice continent in the 1970s and is referred to by the Russian word polynya.

Sometimes stretching to thousands of square mile, the holes are generally thought to be caused by the deep water in the Southern Ocean being warmer and saltier than the surface water. Therefore, when warmer currents are brought upwards by currents, blankets of ice are melted despite continually low temperatures.

What makes this hole particularly remarkable, however, is that it has occurred "deep in the ice pack", as atmospheric physicist Kent Moore explained to MotherboardConsidering its position, scientists have concluded that it must have been formed by other processes that are not yet clear. 

As Moore explains, a polynya was found in the area four decades years ago but only just reappeared last year when it stayed around for a few weeks before disappearing once more. As he says:

"This is now the second year in a row it's opened after 40 years of not being there. We're still trying to figure out what's going on."

The experts are currently reluctant to put the phenomenon down to climate change but they have predicted that it will have a broader impact on our oceans in the future, possibly even creating permanent holes in the ice. 

But the good news is that the tools and data we have on the subject are much more advanced than they were 40 years ago, so we should have some hypotheses soon enough.