Atmospheric rivers help create massive holes in Antarctic sea ice

Warm, moist rivers of air may have continent-wide effects and influence climate change

RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

Research News

IMAGE
IMAGE: A BAND OF CLOUDS IN AN ATMOSPHERIC RIVER EXTENDING FROM SOUTH AMERICA TO THE ANTARCTIC SEA ICE ZONE ON SEPT. 16, 2017. view more CREDIT: NASA

Warm, moist rivers of air in Antarctica play a key role in creating massive holes in sea ice in the Weddell Sea and may influence ocean conditions around the vast continent as well as climate change, according to Rutgers co-authored research.

Scientists studied the role of long, intense plumes of warm, moist air – known as atmospheric rivers – in creating enormous openings in sea ice. They focused on the Weddell Sea region of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, where these sea ice holes (called polynyas) infrequently develop during the winter. A large hole in this area was first observed in 1973 and a hole developed again in the late winter and early spring of 2017.

In the first study of its kind, published in the journal Science Advances, scientists found that repeated strong atmospheric rivers during late August through mid-September 2017 played a crucial role in forming the sea ice hole. These rivers brought warm, moist air from the coast of South America to the polar environment, warming the sea ice surface and making it vulnerable to melting.

“Polynyas strongly influence the physical and ecological dynamics of the Southern Ocean,” said co-author Kyle Mattingly, a post-doctoral researcher at the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “They serve as giant ‘windows’ in the sea ice that allow large amounts of heat to move from the ocean to the atmosphere, modifying regional and global ocean circulation. They also affect the timing and magnitude of phytoplankton (algae) blooms, which are the base of the marine food web. Our study will pave the way for greater understanding of climate variability and climate change in these regions.”

Previous studies have found that atmospheric rivers influence melting of West Antarctic land ice and ice shelves, and the new study builds on those findings by showing their effects on Antarctic sea ice for the first time. The rivers are thousands of miles long and the sea ice holes cover thousands of square miles, usually at specific locations that are primed by local ocean circulation conditions.

West Antarctica, an enormous ice sheet that sits on land, is melting and contributing to global sea-level rise, and the melting has accelerated in the 21st century. If the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, the ocean level would rise by about 200 feet, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. Sea-level rise and flooding from coastal storms threaten coastal communities worldwide, especially in low-lying areas.

Under projected future climate change, atmospheric rivers are predicted to become more frequent, longer, wider and more effective in moving high levels of water vapor toward the Antarctic Ocean and continent, along with increasing the intensity of precipitation. In general, where they make landfall is predicted to shift toward the poles, and the effect of climate change on sea ice holes in the Weddell Sea and elsewhere in the Southern Ocean is an important area for future research.

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Co-authors include scientists at Khalifa University of Science and Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology and the Australian Antarctic Division and Australian Antarctic Program Partnership.

From EurekAlert!

60 thoughts on “Atmospheric rivers help create massive holes in Antarctic sea ice

  1. West Antarctica, an enormous ice sheet that sits on land, is melting and contributing to global sea-level rise, and the melting has accelerated in the 21st century. If the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, the ocean level would rise by about 200 feet, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. Sea-level rise and flooding from coastal storms threaten coastal communities worldwide, especially in low-lying areas.

    The reason that an ice sheet exists in West Antarctica is because it’s well below freezing there, it can’t melt. It might be losing ice because more ice calves into the sea than snow falls on the interior, but temperature has nothing to do with it.

    Besides that the implication is that this is a new phenomenon. The probability that this has been happening right along isn’t discussed.

    Tide gauges show that sea level has been going up ever since the first one was installed over 200 years ago, the water has to be coming from somewhere, and the polar ice sheets are probably the source.

    • Underwater studies provide clear evidence that some ice shelves are melting from underneath– heat from the water below. That doesn’t mean it is abnormal, some of it seems to have been going on for hundreds or thousands of years. Some of the heat might be from geothermal vents or undersea volcanoes, some might be from altered currents, or use your imagination to find other possibilities, but the melting does seem to be happening.

      • AndyHce – at 3:26 am

        Underwater studies provide clear evidence that some ice shelves are melting from underneath– heat from the water below. That doesn’t mean it is abnormal, some of it seems to have been going on for hundreds or thousands of years. Some of the heat might be from geothermal vents or undersea volcanoes, some might be from altered currents, or use your imagination to find other possibilities, but the melting does seem to be happening.

        And I can hear Johnny Carson’s audience shouting, “How warm is it?”

        Here’s a link
        https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200129174526.htm
        that says:

        The recorded warm waters — more than two degrees above freezing — flow beneath the Thwaites Glacier, which is part of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet.

        That’s the temperature of water below the thermocline and doesn’t have anything to do with vents & volcanoes.

        Put a beaker of ice water in your refrigerator (about 2-3°C) and it will take a while for the ice cubes to melt.

        Here’s a nice illustration from Science Mag.org:
        https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/346/6214/1180/F1.large.jpg

        So warm circumpolar deep water flows along the bottom of the ocean, flows under the sea ice, flows under the calved ice, flows under the ice shelf and THEN melts the ice sheet at the grounding line.

        Or I could have just said, yes when the ice calves into the ocean, the icebergs will finally melt.

        What’s being implied is that ice is calving into the ocean faster than it did decades or centuries ago.

        From my file of quotes & smart remarks:
        “Observing something for the first time, doesn’t mean it has never happened before.”

        • There are more than a few statements in papers and press releases that warmer water from outside the Antarctic circle flows under the circumpolar current and eventually rises to the surface near or under the ice sheets. Maybe it does. It would seem it has to come from somewhere.

          I have also read, from a scientist that works, or worked, on either Pine Island or Thwaites that while that is the favorite theory, among several, no one has yet been able to identify such a connecting current. That was several years ago. Is there now real direct evidence that outside the circumpolar current is the source, rather than just that there is warm water under the ice sheets? Aren’t competing hypothesis always the case when adequate evidence isn’t available?

          That researcher also wrote that, from data collected by the first deep water robots, unmanned vehicles, developed only a few years ago, that the melting at the grounding line was estimated to have been going on from 300 to 1000 years. While this is short term in the 30 million or so years of the Antarctic ice sheet, is rather long in terms of human technology. Has more recent evidence greatly modified that estimate of melt time?

          While I personally have no idea, a number of researches have concluded that deep water geothermal activity is responsibility for at least some of the melting. In addition, a map of recently (last few fears) discovered Antarctic volcanoes show an active (on land) volcanoe under the Thwaites glacier. It doesn’t seem to have any effect through a mile or whatever of ice to the surface, but if it is really there, it could be melting enough to lubricate the path into the water.

      • “AndyHce November 15, 2020 at 3:26 am
        Underwater studies “

        Underwater “studies” that do not really study much under water or under the glaciers…
        Presumptive studies alleging conditions under the glaciers is neither evidence nor proven.

        Decades have passed since the first sea level dooms were pronounced, all based upon Antarctica’s glaciers sliding into the ocean because of under glacier ice melt by Antarctic currents.
        Wishing does not make it so.

        Nor are “atmospheric rivers” that happen to pass near polynas proven causation. Just another theory based upon assumption and opinions.

        • What I wrote about was presented in a paper (that I unfortunately don’t know how to find) based on data collected by the first underwater robots that were able to go deep enough to get under the ice sheets and video the disconnect between the ice and the grounding ridge, as well as collect various other kinds of data. Later development of those vehicles allowed them to reach the bottom and observe the geothermal vents. What I read clearly admitted there was not yet enough data draw any conclusions about that source of warm water and it effect, or lack thereof, on the ice sheet, but stated that the amount, and temperature, of the water from the vents was surprisingly high.

          I did not write any conclusions, I just wrote about what has been published.

    • > The reason that an ice sheet exists in West Antarctica
      > is because it’s well below freezing there, it can’t melt
      Actually it can. The northern you go the more the number of days above zero, and there are a few days of above zero temperatures on a lot of places on the continent, and this number is growing as well.
      Increased melt water further “lubricates” glaciers (a phenomenon observed cc a decade ago on Greenland), and the collapsing sea ice fields less and less act as barriers to glacier calving. So perhaps temperatures stay below zero most of the time, increased ice loss and even melting do occur.

      • Actually it can. The northern you go the more the number of days above zero, and there are a few days of above zero temperatures on a lot of places on the continent, and this number is growing as well.
        Increased melt water further “lubricates” glaciers (a phenomenon observed cc a decade ago on Greenland), and the collapsing sea ice fields less and less act as barriers to glacier calving. So perhaps temperatures stay below zero most of the time, increased ice loss and even melting do occur.

        You can Google the Wikipedia page for McMurdo station to find out that the average monthly high temperature is below freezing. Yes there are a few days of above zero – extrapolating that into “actually it can melt” is silly. Number of days above freezing increasing? Wikipedia doesn’t say. If McMurdo were experiencing a warming trend I’d expect Wikipedia to say so. Maybe you could do some research to show me that it is.

        Ice skates work because there’s a thin layer of water between the blade and the ice. Adding more water to the surface isn’t going to increase the lubrication for the ice skates or the glaciers. This is one of the lies that the skeptical side of the argument never challenges. Besides that, if melt water is reaching the bottom of the glacier, it’s been doing that right along. Proof that this is a new phenomenon is needed. More research for you to do.

    • I spent 2 months climbing Mt. Foster on Smith Island in 1996. Nearby Deception Island is a huge active volcanic caldera where you can hot-tub in the water while scalded ready-to-eat prawns float by.
      Average interior temp is -76 F with winter lows of -112 F recorded.
      Average coastal temp is 14 F with winter lows of -40 F recorded.
      The continent doubles in size due to sea ice in winter.
      There is no such thing as a warm atmospheric river in Antarctica-it is the worlds largest and driest desert. The Weddell Sea ice is governed by ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns–ask Ernest Shackleton…
      Antarctica is gaining ice mass–even the IPCC and NOAA agree on this, although they try to hide it in their graphs and figures.

      • > There is no such thing as a warm atmospheric river in Antarctica
        This is observation, not even modelling (the Most Dreaded Thing here). Why do you have always to fighting with facts?

        > Antarctica is gaining ice mass–even the
        > IPCC and NOAA agree on this, although they
        > try to hide it in their graphs and figures.
        See above, why do you fight facts? Antarctica is losing ice at an ever increasing rate. This is again observation, not modelling.

        • losing ice on the coast……but gaining ice inland from snowfall

          gaining ice inland means those glaciers will be thicker when they reach the coast

          from 5 years ago….

          November 5, 2015
          “According to the new analysis of satellite data, the Antarctic ice sheet showed a net gain of 112 billion tons of ice a year from 1992 to 2001. That net gain slowed to 82 billion tons of ice per year between 2003 and 2008.”

          so all the crying about losing ice now…..ignores all the ice that was build up before

          it’s called manipulating

    • “The reason that an ice sheet exists in West Antarctica is because it’s well below freezing there, it can’t melt. It might be losing ice because more ice calves into the sea than snow falls on the interior, but temperature has nothing to do with it.”
      Obviously you have never stood outside your house when it s well below 0°C, 32°F, 20 degrees below freezing, on a bright sunny day and seen the steam rise from the snow on the roof and the water trickle out the downspout (with a well insulated home where the attic is also below freezing.) Happens at my house, often, and my home is insulated for electric heat/heat pump. over two feet of blown in insulation.
      ” but temperature has nothing to do with it.”” Correct. the SUN has something to do with it.

    • Steve
      “Besides that the implication is that this is a new phenomenon. The probability that this has been happening right along isn’t discussed”.
      It has been occurring all along, at different frequencies and volume. There is nothing new about our global climate. The only difference now is that we can see and record it in greater detail.

      Earth Null on that day at 3pm
      https://earth.nullschool.net/#2017/09/17/1500Z/wind/isobaric/850hPa/orthographic=-61.87,-40.52,409

    • “…it’s well below freezing there, it can’t melt. It might be losing ice because more ice calves into the sea…”
      It might not melt, but it WILL ablate. The atmospheric vortices at the poles, by definition, lowers the air pressure. Ice can, and will, become gaseous without the usual melting into water.
      This is how freeze-drying works, a common and profitable commercial process. No magic explanations needed.
      Did some quick maths on the 200-meter sealevel rise. My first, knee-jerk mental probiasmathics tells me we wil need an antarctic ice sheet 25 kilometers thick… I shall review my sums, of course.
      …but how I laughed that day they told me about the “hole in the ozone”!

  2. “If the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, the ocean level would rise by about 200 feet,”

    If my Aunt had balls, she would be my uncle.

    Seriously, what is the purpose of making that statement about the ice sheet?
    Is it just to frighten impressionable children, and subconsciously reinforce the nagging claim that we are all doomed? If not, then what?

    • > Seriously, what is the purpose of making that statement about the ice sheet?
      That’s the perspective paragraph, meant to give some context to this popular scientific review of the paper.

      • nyolci – 5:12 am
        That’s the perspective paragraph, meant to give some context to this popular scientific review of the paper.

        The paper is about the Polynyas in the sea ice. Extrapolating that into 200 feet of sea level rise isn’t providing context, it’s providing a boogeyman .

      • If the moon fell into the ocean with only a gentle splash, how far would that rise sea level? Shouldn’t the public be informed?

  3. So now, more snow precipitation contributes to Antarctica ice shit melting and will cause sea rise …

    How can one be so dumb to write (and worse for EurekAlert!, to publish) such an idiotic garbage ?

    • > So now, more snow precipitation contributes
      > to Antarctica ice shit melting and will cause sea rise …
      1. They never mentioned “more snow”.
      2. They specifically mentioned warm, moist air.
      It means this phenomenon draws more heat to the Antarctica like a conveyor belt, increasing average temperatures and eventually melting.

        • > Off course they never mentioned “more snow”
          > but what you think precipitates at -30°C ?
          1. It’s not always -30. Actually temperature can be above zero at certain places and times.
          2. Even when the warm moisture freezes it has already brought heat to the Antarctica, increasing the frequency and length of actual above zero temperatures.
          Remember, this is heat transport. Even a pangolin will understand this after a while.

      • No, the warm water blanketed by the cold ice is now exposed and is thus able radiate its heat to space. Surely this will cause net cooling of the planet?

  4. With todays melting conditions, we have at least 22.000+ years to go on before “the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet has melted and the ocean level has risen by about 200 feet”. Serious research found out that a while ago.
    But alas, and Oh my God, what do I hear here?!
    Do I have to shoot my dog since the end is so nigh? Like a distant relative of mine did with his dog Jupiter after having listened to Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” on Sunday, October 30, 1938, over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network.
    Is it possible that my dog may be saved?

    • > With todays melting conditions, we have at least 22.000+ years to go on before
      Very likely no. The complete melting may be away but even 1-2 feet of sea level rise can be catastrophic. Furthermore, ice loss is greater than what you can expect from temperature rise ‘cos melt water acts as a lubricant for glaciers (simply physically accelerating them), and the sea ice fields that act like barriers for calving are collapsing. Once ice is floating freely it’s forever lost even if temperatures are low.

      • Agreed that it’s very likely not going to all melt in 22,000 years.

        Very likely is that long before that point, our interstadial will be over and the ice will build up again so that it remains through the next several interstadials just as it has for the last 34 million years.

        • > Agreed that it’s very likely not going to all melt in 22,000 years.
          Haha, funny guy, you caught me 😉 Well, reality is more like sad, science says if we continue as we do now Antarctic ice will disappear much sooner regardless of the state of the interstadial.

          • One day you will see that your Green religion has led you astray, nyolci.

            The Antarctic ice isn’t going anywhere and the oceans are rising at a slow linear pace. Same as it ever was.

            The minor warming we have seen is purely beneficial. When the cooling comes again, that will be the crisis. We’ll be as powerless to affect cooling as we are to affect warming.

          • @Rich Davis
            > One day you will see that your Green religion has led you astray, nyolci.
            Sorry but I’m neither religious nor green.

            > The Antarctic ice isn’t going anywhere
            Uh, another expert… According to measurements Antarctica is losing ice, and the speed is increasing. I don’t doubt the whole ice sheet won’t go away but a relatively small loss will give us problems.

            > and the oceans are rising at a slow linear pace. Same as it ever was.
            The thing is that it’s not linear and it’s not same as it ever was. Furthermore, tell me, Mr. Expert, why the hell sea level is rising at all? If you answer this question you should know why the rate is not linear. Provided you don’t come up with some science denier bullshit.

          • Tell us , little monkey,

            Why is sea level trend the same as it has been for over 100 years ?

            Antarctic ice mass looks like this since 1900

            https://i.postimg.cc/kMf5RGB9/Antarctic-Ice-Mass.png

            NOTHING is happening.

            This year the sea ice has been above the satellite average basically all year,.

            Remain UNINFORMED and in childish climate DENIAL, little nyholist

            …. its the only way you can stay in the AGW cult.

      • The sea water melts the ice, not the air! You are completely scientifically illiterate.
        It takes 80 calories to melt one gram of ice at melting point, 0 deg C. One calorie will raise the temperature of one gram of water or ice one deg C. So, you see a large amount of heat will be required to melt the ice. You first have to warm the ice to 0 deg C and that must be accounted for.
        Due to the specific heat and specific gravity of air and water, water contains around 3300 times as much heat per unit volume as air at the same temperature and under the same pressure.
        Slightly warmer air has no chance of doing what is claimed whereas water has what is required.
        John

        • I didn’t notice your genius…
          > So, you see a large amount of heat will be required to melt the ice
          Current estimation of excess heat energy trapped in the atmosphere due to the effects of CO2 increase is the energy of five Hiroshima atomic bombs PER SECOND. So there is energy, you science denier genius.

          • nyolci
            You miss the point entirely. The water has so much more energy (heat), is in contact with the ice and can transfer it to the ice very efficiently while the airflow has very little in comparison.
            I suppose you think that the five Hiroshima atomic bombs is concentrated over the antarctic. I believe that that heat is for the whole of the atmosphere not just that one area.
            That five Hiroshima atomic bombs is BS, just created to frighten children.
            Because of the characteristics mentioned above water can transfer the heat much more efficiently. Water or ice have a great effect on the temperature of air not the reverse.
            John

  5. Nothing funny about these “atmospheric rivers” coming down from coastal South America and melting ice in Antarctica, because, the atmospheric river is the SE moving air mass which originates off Antarctica further west from South America, rises into South America (where my house is) and freezes everything. This atmospheric river then continues southeast to do the melting in Antarctica. This phenomena seems to be exaggerated during ENSO neutral or La Niña conditions as latitude winds are weak then. Sea level is a big nothing-burger, forget about it.

    • Psychologically, fear of future danger or disaster, especially by actions of one’s own doing, is a valuable survivability trait that has likely served mankind well. That’s why people tend to hear out doomsayers, then apply their own rational pragmatism to what they hear.

  6. Melting of floating ice does not raise the sea level. Fill a glass wit water and ice, make sure the ice is floating, mark the water level with tape on the out side of the jar, put a lid on it to prevent evaporation, check the water level the next day.

  7. “These rivers brought warm, moist air from the coast of South America to the polar environment, warming the sea ice surface and making it vulnerable to melting.” – article

    Yeah, so? That’s been going for a very, very long time. It is NOT something new. It frequently is the source of violent storms between Antarctica and the southern tip of South America. How come these people didn’t mention anything about Australia’s influence? Not close enough to the south continent? This appears to be an incomplete study, in my view, but then, I don’t know what the intention was to produce it in the first place.

    They didn’t address the influence of Mt. Erebus and that volcanic rift zone that it sits on. That has a great deal of influence on things down there, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

    Sorry, but that “study” just seems incomplete to me. It appears to be blaming natural processes for something and implying a threat of some kind, when there’s no purpose in it other than alarmism again.

  8. Let’s say the ocean is currently on its way to rise 200 feet eventually. So What! Humans have been migrating as needed for tens of thousands of years in response to a changing climate as well as excellent adaptation skills.

  9. If warm, moist air is blowing into Antarctica, it will get lifted and cooled when it hits the continent, condense and fall as snow. What you lose in ice on the edges you make up with snow in the interior. Where is the ice coming from along the edges of the continent anyway? From snow falling inland.

  10. I spent 2 months climbing Mt. Foster on Smith Island in 1996. Nearby Deception Island is a huge active volcanic caldera where you can hot-tub in the water while scalded ready-to-eat prawns float by.
    Average interior temp is -76 F with winter lows of -112 F recorded.
    Average coastal temp is 14 F with winter lows of -40 F recorded.
    The continent doubles in size due to sea ice in winter.
    There is no such thing as a warm atmospheric river in Antarctica-it is the worlds largest and driest desert. The Weddell Sea ice is governed by ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns–ask Ernest Shackleton…
    Antarctica is gaining ice mass–even the IPCC and NOAA agree on this, although they try to hide it in their graphs and figures.

  11. Waffle words driving pretend science.
    Word highlights are mine.

    “Warm, moist rivers of air may have continent-wide effects and influence

    “and the effect of climate change on sea ice holes in the Weddell Sea and elsewhere in the Southern Ocean is an important area for future research.”

    Translation:
    Give us eternal jobs, international travel to ultra-expensive world vacation destinations and lots more money!

  12. SCIENTISTS DRILL INTO DOOMSDAY GLACIER, STOP IT FURTHER DRILLING NOW. !!!!!!!
    https://raveendrannarayanan.wordpress.com/2020/01/30/scientists-drill-into-doomsday-glacier-stop-it-further-drilling-now/  

    #MELTINGDEICINGareTWOdiffrentPROCESS
    http://www.airconditioningthemotherearth.com
    https://youtu.be/XlarSQIYHL4

    Not CO2 and GHG, But DE-ICERS from Heavy duty Desalination plants.

    NOAA/NASA dramatically altered Global Temperatures. http://wp.me/pPrQ9-t2w via @wordpressdotcom https:raveendrannarayanan.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/one-shot-many-birds/

    “NOT CO2 & SUN, THEN WHAT?” http://wp.me/p25H2W-9M

    https://www.linkedin.com/posts/unfccc_climatechange-actnow-activity-6656947844705988609-k2H0

    IPCC needs $122 TRILLION for Climate Correction.
    During #COVID19PANDEMIC #UNFCCC announced that they need $600 TRILLION to CORRECT CLIMATE until 2050. BUT WITH A DOLLAR WE CAN CORRECT CLIMATE.
    https://lnkd.in/erZHg3W ” NOMINATE FOR NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 🏆 2021″

    #GlobalWarmingGroupsSettingFires
    #CO2GangsDistroyingMotherEarth #unfccc #noaa #ipcc #pulitzerprize #nobelpeaceprizecommitte #350org #notco2 #waterprize #stopsearisenow
    #airconditioningthemotherearth #ChallengingGlacialScintists #parisagreement
    #raveendrannarayanan @Raveendrannaray

  13. “Atmospheric rivers help create massive holes in Antarctic sea ice”

    No they don’t, the answers lies below.

    If this was true the the massive holes would form directly during/just after a persistent northerly air flow over the regional sea ice and this doesn’t occur.

    Like persistent northerly air flow in the northern hemisphere doesn’t freeze into sea ice in the North Atlantic ocean around NW Europe because the ocean temperatures with a south to north flow controls it.

    Ocean Eddies on Antarctica’s Cold Water Continental Shelves and Their Effects on Ice Shelf Basal Melting.

    “Previous studies have demonstrated the importance of eddy fluxes for ice shelves affected by relatively warm intrusions of Circumpolar Deep Water.”

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