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Winter in Antarctica: how can ice keep the ocean warm?

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Helen Czerski Helen Czerski | 15:45 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

Antarctic sea ice

Image © NASA

d ~ 349'900'800 km : day 136

In Antarctica, it's getting colder. The sun last shone on the south pole in March, and the tilt of our planet means that each day complete darkness swallows up a bit more of the continent. Since there's no incoming energy from the sun, the land and the ocean can only cool down. And it's at this time of year in the south that an innocuous little fact, one that most of us take entirely for granted, quietly makes the huge Southern Ocean a much more hospitable place for almost all marine life.

Ice floats. Icebergs, ice cubes, ice on a freezing river... they all float. And this is weird, because when most substances freeze they get more dense and so the bits that are frozen solid will sink to the bottom of the unfrozen liquid. Water has the quirk that when it freezes, the molecules form a rigid crystal structure with gaps between the atoms that weren't there before. The consequence is that ice is less dense than the water it froze from, and so it floats.

If frozen water sank, just imagine what would happen. Ponds, lakes and the oceans would freeze from the bottom up. There would be nowhere warm and protected under the ice for living things to hide, and the water would just keep freezing upwards until there was no liquid left. All water-based life would have much more of a struggle to survive.

As it is, ice actually acts as an insulating lid, keeping the water below it warm. Heat is lost from the liquid water surface about a hundred times faster than from the ice surface, so less heat is lost overall from an ice-covered ocean. At this time of year, sea ice is growing rapidly in the Antarctic, and it's as if the ocean is responding to the cold by growing itself a blanket. Every year in the Antarctic, 19 million square kilometers of sea ice is formed, and each summer almost all of it melts.

This ice is also a bit like a floating pantry. Lots of algae and krill live on the bottom of it, and these are an important source of food for fish and other Antarctic life.

Sea ice is amazing stuff. It's different to icebergs - those are huge lumps of ice that have fallen off glaciers into the ocean. Sea ice is the ocean freezing at its surface, thickening into large mobile slabs as the winter season goes on. My favourite thing about this ice is that even though the ocean is salty, sea ice isn't. As the water freezes, the salt molecules are squeezed out, first into little brine pockets and later (especially if the ice lasts more than one year) into the ocean. You could hack off a bit of multi-year sea ice, stick it in your drink and never notice its salty origins.

So when you look at ice cubes jostling around in your glass this summer, think about the ice on the other side of the world, jostling around Antarctica in the dark. It's keeping a huge amount of extra heat in the Southern Ocean until the sun comes back, and all just because it floats.


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