Transient sea-ice polynya forced by oceanic flow variability

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In the Weddell Sea during the winters of 1974-1976 a significant opening in the sea-ice cover occurred in the vicinity of a large bathymetric feature - the Maud Rise seamount. The event is commonly referred to as the Weddell Polynya. Aside from such a large-scale, relatively persistent polynya in the Weddell Sea, transient, small-scale polynya can also appear in the sea-ice cover at various times throughout the winter and at various locations with respect to the Maud Rise. The underlying causes for the occurrence of such transient polynya have not been unambiguously identified. We hypothesize that variations in the mean ocean currents are one major contributor to such variability in the sea-ice cover. Analysis of the sea-ice equations with certain idealized patterns of ocean currents serving as forcing is shown to lead to Ekman transports of sea ice favorable to the initiation of transient polynya. Aside from the actual spatial pattern of the idealized ocean currents, many other factors need also be taken into account when looking at such transient polynya. Two other such factors discussed are variations in the sea-ice thickness field and the treatment of the sea-ice rheology. Simulations of a sea-ice model coupled to a dynamical ocean model show that the interaction of (dynamical) oceanic currents with large-scale topographic features, such as the Maud Rise, does lead to the formation of transient polynya, again through Ekman transport effects. This occurs because the seamount has a dynamic impact on the three-dimensional oceanic flow field all the way up through the water column, and hence on the near surface ocean currents that are in physical contact with the sea ice. Further simulations of a sea-ice model coupled to a dynamic ocean model and forced with atmospheric buoyancy fluxes show that transient polynya can be enhanced when atmospheric cooling provides a positive feedback mechanism allowing preferential open-ocean convection to occur. The convection, which takes hold at sites where transient polynya have been initiated by sea-ice-ocean stress interaction, has an enhancing effect arising from the convective access to warmer, deeper waters. To investigate all of these effects in a hierarchical manner we use a primitive equation coupled sea-ice-ocean numerical model configured in a periodic channel domain with specified atmospheric conditions. We show that oceanic flow variability can account for temporal variability in small-scale, transient polynya and thus point to a plausible mechanism for the initiation of large-scale, sustained polynya such as the Weddell Polynya event of the mid 1970s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)403-460
Number of pages58
JournalProgress in Oceanography
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Geology


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