Cryospheric Sciences

Weddell Polynya

Image of the Week – Unravelling the mystery of the 2017 Weddell Polynya

Figure 1: The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired these images of the Maud Rise or Weddell polynya in the eastern Weddell Sea on September 25, 2017. The first image is natural color and the second is false color where areas of ice are in blue and clouds are in white. [Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory].

The mysterious appearance and disappearance of the Weddell Polynya, a giant hole in the ice, has long puzzled scientists. Recent work reveals that it is tightly tied to energetic storms. Read on to find out more…

The eastern side of the Weddell Sea is a region known for its low concentration of sea ice due to the presence of a seamount, an underwater plateau called the Maud Rise. The seamount influences ocean circulation by bringing warm water closer to the surface, preventing the formation of thick ice. In the early 1970s, when satellites first began snapping photos of Earth, scientists noticed a mysterious hole in Antarctica’s seasonal sea ice floating in this area. This phenomenon is known as a polynya, and for decades its occurrence went unexplained. Then in 2017, during the continent’s coldest winter months, when ice should be at its thickest, a giant 9,500-square-kilometre hole suddenly showed up in the same region (Figure 1). Two months later it had grown 740% larger, before merging with the open ocean at the beginning of the melt season.

The Weddell Polynya is a rather famous hole in the ice (see this previous post). Scientists have been investigating such features in the Southern Ocean for decades, but the true reasons for the appearance and disappearance of the Weddell Polynya were still surrounded by mystery – until now.

Why does the Weddell Polynya form?

Recently, our new study found that these mid-sea polynyas can be triggered by strong cyclonic storms. Using satellite observations and reanalysis data, we found that in some winters, atmospheric circulation moves a significant amount of heat and moisture from mid-latitudes to Antarctica, allowing large cyclones to develop over the sea ice pack. When strong cyclones – some as strong as hurricanes – form and spin over the ice pack, the strong cyclonic winds they can drag the floating sea ice in opposite directions away from the cyclone center, creating the opening.

Sea ice typically drifts in a direction turned 30° on average to the left of the atmospheric flow, with a speed amounting to 1–2% of the surface wind speed. Those rules, when applied to a cyclonic wind situation (i.e., two opposing winds around a center), imply divergence in the motion of sea ice leading to open water area within the cyclone center, as in Fig. 2. We can see how such a situation occurs in real life for the Weddell Polynya when looking at Fig. 3, where near-surface winds exceeding 20 m/s are pushing the ice in opposite directions away from the cyclone center, characterized by weak winds, and the hole in the ice underneath it.

Figure 2: Sketch summarizing the mechanisms by which the cyclone can open the polynya [Credit: Francis et al., 2019].

Why does the Weddell Polynya matter?

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. This includes impact on the regional atmospheric circulation, the global overturning circulation, Antarctic deep and bottom water properties, and oceanic carbon uptake. It is important for us to identify the triggers for their occurrence to improve their representation in models and their effects on climate.

What might happen in the future?

Under future warming-climate conditions, previous studies have predicted an intensification of the activity of polar cyclones and a poleward shift of the extratropical storm track. Others have shown that a poleward shift of the cyclone activity can result in a reduced sea ice extent, a situation similar to that observed in 2016 and 2017. When the sea ice extent is reduced, preferable polynya areas (i.e. areas of thinner ice, for example the Maud Rise) located in the ice pack become closer to the ice edge and hence to the cyclogenesis zone. Given the link between polynya occurrence and cyclones, polynya events may thus become more frequent under a warmer climate.

Figure 3 AMSR2‐derived sea ice concentrations on 16 September 2017 at 1200 UTC (colors) and ERA5 10‐m winds less than 20 m/s in black contours, and greater than 20 m/s in red contours.The solid yellow contour is the 15% ERA‐Interim sea ice contour, the dotted yellow contour is the 50% ERA‐Interim sea ice contour, and the dashed white contour is the 15% ice from satellite data delineating the polynya area. [Credit: Francis et al., 2019].

Further reading

Edited by Lettie Roach

Diana Francis is an atmospheric scientist at New York University Abu Dhabi, UAE. She investigates atmospheric dynamics in polar regions with focus on polar meteorology and links to changes in land and sea ice conditions. To this end, she uses regional models together with available observations and reanalyses. She tweets as @drdianafrancis.
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Image of the Week – A Hole-y Occurrence, the reappearance of the Weddell Polynya

Image of the Week – A Hole-y Occurrence, the reappearance of the Weddell Polynya

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During both the austral winters of 2016 and 2017, a famous feature of the Antarctic sea-ice cover was observed once again, 40 years after its first observed occurrence: the Weddell Polynya! The sea-ice cover exhibited a huge hole (of around 2600 km2 up to 80,000 km2 at its peak!), as shown on our Image of the Week. What makes this event so unique and special?

Why does the Weddell Polynya form?

The Weddell Polynya is an open ocean polynya (a large hole in the sea ice, see this previous post), observed in the Weddell Sea (see Fig.2). It was first observed in the 1970s but then did not form for a very long time, until 2016 and 2017…


Fig. 2: Map of the sea ice distribution around Antarctica on 25th of September 2017, derived from satellite data. The red circle marks the actual Weddell Polynya [Credit: Modified from]

In the Southern Ocean, warm saline water masses underlie cold, fresh surface water masses. The upper cold fresh layer acts like a lid, insulating the warmer deep waters from the cold atmosphere. While coastal polynyas (see this previous post) are caused by coastal winds, open ocean polynyas are more mysteriously formed as it is not as clear what causes the warm deep water to be mixed upwards. In the case of the Weddell polynya, it forms above an underwater mountain range, the Maud Rise. This ridge is an obstacle to the water flow and can therefore enhance vertical mixing of the deeper warm saline water masses. The warm water that reaches the surface melts any overlying sea ice, and large amounts of heat is lost from the ocean surface to the atmosphere (see Fig. 3).


Fig. 3: Schematic of polynya formation. The Weddell polynya is an open ocean polynya [Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center].


Why do we care about the Weddell Polynya?

Overturning and mixing of the water column in the Weddell Polynya forms cold, dense Antarctic Bottom Water, releasing heat stored in the ocean to the atmosphere in the process. Antarctic Bottom Water is formed in the Southern Ocean (predominantly in the Ross and Weddell Seas) and flows northwards, forming the lower branch of the overturning circulation which transports heat from the equator to the poles (see Fig. 4). Antarctic Bottom Water also carries oxygen to the rest of the Earth’s deep oceans. The absence of the Weddell polynya could reduce the formation rate of Antarctic Bottom water, which could weaken the lower branch of the overturning circulation.

Fig.4: Schematic of the overturning (thermohaline) circulation. Deep water formation sites are marked by yellow ovals. Modified from: Rahmstorf, 2002 [©Springer Nature. Used with permission.]

How often does the Weddell Polynya form?

The last time the Weddell Polynya was observed was during the austral winters of 1974 to 1976 (see Fig. 5). It was then absent for nearly 40 years (!) up until austral winter 2016. In a modelling study, de Lavergne et al. 2014 suggested that the Weddell Polynya used to be more common before anthropogenic CO2 emissions started rising at a fast pace. The increased surface freshwater input from melting glaciers and ice sheets, and increased precipitation (as climate change increases the hydrological cycle) have freshened the surface ocean. This freshwater acts again as a lid on top of the warm deeper waters, preventing open ocean convection, reducing the production of Antarctic Bottom Water.

Fig. 5: Color-coded sea ice concentration maps derived from passive microwave satellite data in the Weddell Sea region from the 1970s. The Weddell Polynya is the extensive area of open water (in blue) [Credit: Gordon et al., 2007, ©American Meteorological Society. Used with permission.].

The reappearance of the Weddell Polynya over the past two winters despite the increased surface freshwater input suggests that other natural sources of variability may be currently masking this predicted trend towards less open ocean deep convection. Latif et al. 2013 put forward a theory describing centennial scale variability of Weddell Sea open ocean deep convection, as seen in climate models. In this theory, there are two modes of operation, one where there is no open ocean convection and the Weddell Polynya is not present. In this situation, sea surface temperatures are cold and the deep ocean is warm, and there is relatively large amount of sea ice. The heat at depth increases with time, as it is insulated by the sea ice and freshwater lid. Then, eventually, the deep water becomes warm enough that the stratification is decreased sufficiently so that open water convection begins again, forming the Weddell Polynya. This process continues until the heat reservoir depletes and surface freshwater forcing switches off the deep convection. Models show that the timescale of this variability is set by the stratification, and models with stronger stratification tend to vary on longer timescale, as the heat needs to build up more in order to overcome the stratification.


In the end, the Weddell Polynya is still surrounded by some mystery… Only the next decades will bring us more insight into the true reasons for the appearance and disappearance of the Weddell Polynya…


Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard

Rebecca Frew is a PhD student at the University of Reading (UK). She investigates the importance of feedbacks between the sea ice, atmosphere and ocean for the Antarctic sea ice cover using a hierarchy of climate models. In particular, she is looking at the how the importance of different feedbacks may vary between different regions of the Southern Ocean.