Research News

Khalifa University Scientists Unravel 40-Year Long Mystery of Large Sea in the Middle of Antarctic Ice Cover

November 12, 2020

Large-Scale Poleward Transport of Heat and Moisture by Atmospheric Rivers Causes A Stretch of Open Water in Antarctica


Researchers from Khalifa University’s Environmental and Geophysical Sciences (ENGEOS) Laboratory have unraveled a more than 40-year scientific mystery when they identified the reason for the occurrence of a body of unfrozen ocean that appeared within a thick body of ice during Antarctica’s winter, known as a Polynya event. Two major Polynya events were recorded in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica in 1973 and 2017.


In fact, Khalifa University researchers have discovered that synoptic-scale atmospheric rivers (AR) emerging from the tropics and spreading poleward into the Antarctic Ice Sheet are actually initiating this phenomenon. Anomalous increase in surface temperature was induced by the atmospheric rivers over the ice pack and caused melting and thinning of ice which led to the opening of what is known as the ‘Polynya’ event.


The Khalifa University study also connects this phenomenon, for the first time, to the larger-scale poleward movement of heat and moisture transported by atmospheric rivers, demonstrating their role in Antarctic sea ice melt during the winter and early spring seasons.


The research led by Dr. Diana Francis, Senior Scientist and Head of ENGEOS lab, was recently published in the journal of Science Advances. Co-authors of the study are Dr. Kyle Mattingly from Rutgers University (USA), Dr. Marouane Temimi from Stevens Institute of Technology (USA) and Dr. Rob Massom and Dr. Petra Heil from the Australian Antarctic Division.


Khalifa University is the lead institution for this research project, which is funded by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company Masdar.



According to Dr. Francis, the study demonstrates that changes in the climate occurring at one place on the planet, say for example in the tropics, can have worldwide impact and affect as far as the South Pole.


She added: “Our analysis shows that the atmospheric rivers that initiated the polynya event in September 2017 were the most intense on record. The poleward transport of moisture and warmth by the atmospheric rivers was also the highest on record. Surprisingly, these atmospheric rivers resulted in the highest amount of snowfall on record over the study area, but because of the warm temperatures, it was warm snow that enhanced the ice melt and inhibited refreezing.”


“Previous studies have shown that under a warmer climate, atmospheric river activity in the Southern Ocean will intensify considerably. Given the role of atmospheric rivers in melting sea ice, as demonstrated in this study, it is becoming a pressing concern to assess the impact of atmospheric rivers on the Antarctic-wide sea-ice cover,” she concluded.


Dr. Francis’ previous research in 2019 into this phenomenon had found the important role of storms in triggering the opening of the polynya. However, her current research has found that if atmospheric rivers had not melted the ice before the storms, (a ubiquitous feature around Antarctica, which is not the case of the ARs that are of large scale spanning from the tropics to Antarctica), they would have not been able to trigger the opening of the large area of water.


Building on such research expertise and previous achievements, Khalifa University aims to further broaden the scope of its polar research, attracting young scientists and students to the next phase of this project for addressing the associated environmental challenges.


Earlier in 2019, Khalifa University Material Science and Engineering Graduate Tawaddod Alkindi had the opportunity to participate in the installation of 105 solar panels and three inverters that provide 30 KiloWatts to Casey research station’s grid, the first solar power array at an Australian Antarctic research station. Alkindi was the first student to complete her internship at the Casey research station, located on Vincennes Bay in the Windmill Islands, just outside the Antarctic Circle.


Clarence Michael
English Editor Specialist
12 November 2020