Mystery of giant Antarctic ice holes solved by robots, tricked-out seals

CNET | 6/11/2019 | Leslie Katz
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Elephant seals swimming under the sea ice with temporary satellite tags collected information on water conditions and beamed the data back to shore.

Mysterious giant holes spotted in 2016 and 2017 in the icy winter surface of an Antarctic sea, one bigger than the state of Maryland, fascinated scientists. Though even bigger gaps had formed in the area's sea ice decades before, this time oceanographers closely monitored the gaps using real-time data.

Thanks - Research - Images - Data - Robots

Thanks to new research combining satellite images, data from floating robots and elephant seals swimming under the ice outfitted with sensors on their heads, the mystery of the giant ice holes may be solved. The study, conducted by scientists across the US and Canada, has enabled a better understanding of why such large holes in the sea ice, known as polynyas, form; why they show up only some years; and what they could mean for global ocean circulation -- and the atmosphere. It appears in Monday's issue of the journal Nature.

"Observations show that the recent polynyas opened from a combination of factors -- one being the unusual ocean conditions, and the other being a series of very intense storms that swirled over the Weddell Sea with almost hurricane-force winds," said Ethan Campbell, a University of Washington doctoral student in oceanography and lead author of the study.

Storms - Effect - Icy - Surface - Water

Those storms have a dramatic effect, chipping away at the icy surface and disturbing the water beneath it, causing warmer, saltier water to rise up from deep in the ocean. It had long been suspected that deep ocean heat sustains Antarctic sea-ice openings like those seen in 2016 and 2017, but this had never been observed directly. "It was exciting and surprising to see that vertical mixing reached over a mile deep into the ocean during the polynyas," Campbell said.

However, a polynya (that's...
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