In 1973, a hole the size of California appeared in the Antarctic ice where it remained for three years in a row. The hole, called the Weddell Polynya, disappeared eventually, before opening up again in 2017. Scientists had struggled to explain the phenomenon, with theories such as cyclones or even a mix of climate anomalies combining to create the perfect storm. Until now.
A new study has suggested rivers of warmly packed air in the sky could be responsible.
Atmospheric rivers can see as much as 15 times the amount of water suspended in the atmosphere in the form of vapour.
The air vapour is warmer than the ice in the Antarctic, so when one of these collides with ice, it could open a massive hole.
Diana Francis of Khalifa University of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates and her team collected climatological data from 1973 and were able to identify an atmospheric river near to the Weddell Polynya.
Ms Francis told Nature Middle East: “I was surprised to see an almost immediate melt in the sea ice covered by the atmospheric rivers during the coldest months of the year in Antarctica.”
The research team stated that atmospheric rivers are transporting pockets of warm air to the Antarctic, which is adding to the south pole’s melting ice.
Ms Francis told New Scientist: “The atmospheric rivers also make the storms more intense because they provide more water vapour. They are linked, not independent.”
Globally, as it stands, sea levels are rising at about 8mm a year due to melting ice and climate change, and while that does not seem like much, the implications for future generations could be huge.
Between 1993 and 2014, sea levels rose by 66mm (2.3 inches) – or roughly 3mm per year.
If it continues at the current rate, or gets faster, it could mean coastal cities such as New York could be submerged by the end of the century.
Global warming is contributing to a loss of ice cover in the Arctic and Antarctic circles and researchers believe Greenland could be one of the worst affected.
The ice covering Greenland is up to three kilometres thick in certain places, covering an area seven times the amount of the UK.
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If all of this ice were to melt, it would cause sea levels to rise by a staggering seven metres, which could have major implications for the UK.
In the event of a seven-metre sea level rise northern France will struggle while virtually the entirety of the Netherlands will be submerged, according to Google’s interactive map FireTree.
Low-lying Denmark would also become much smaller.
New York suffers a similar fate, while the Bahamas will be almost completely wiped out.
In Asia, many of the Philippines’ islands would disappear while the Polynesian islands, of which there are more than 1,000, in Oceana would be submerged.
Other major international cities such as Miami, Guangzhou and Tokyo would also become virtually uninhabitable.
Closer to home, Britain becomes a lot narrower, particularly along the east, thanks to a seven-metre sea level rise.
Hull becomes almost completely submerged while areas east of Lincoln all the way down to the east of Cambridge will cease to exist.
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