AskDefine | Define polynya

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From the Russian полынья ([pɐɫɨˈɲja]) , derived from the adjective полый for "hollow"


  1. An area of open water surrounded by sea ice.


an area of open water surrounded by sea ice

Extensive Definition

A polynya (common US spelling) or polynia (common UK spelling) (; from , 'ice hole') is an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. It is now used as geographical term for areas of sea in Arctic or Antarctic regions which remain unfrozen for much of the year. The term derives from the Russian word Полынья for a hole in the ice, and was adopted in the 19th century by polar explorers to describe navigable portions of the sea.


Polynyas are formed through two main processes:
  • The first mechanism for polynya formation is thermodynamically driven, and occurs when the surface water temperature never reaches the freezing point. This may be due to a region of warm water upwelling, which reduces ice production and may stop it altogether. This type of polynya is called a Sensible Heat Polynya.
  • The second type of polynya is called a Latent Heat Polynya and is formed through the action of the wind or ocean currents which act to drive ice away from a fixed boundary, such as a coastline, fast ice, or an ice bridge. The polynya forms by initially the first year pack ice being driven away from the coast, which leaves an area of open water within which new ice is formed. This new ice is then also herded downwind toward the first year pack ice. When it reaches the pack ice the new ice is consolidated onto the first year pack ice. The latent heat polynya is the open water region between the coast and the first year ice pack.
Latent heat polynyas are regions of high ice production and therefore are possible sites of dense water production in both polar regions. The high ice production rates within these polynyas leads to a large amount of brine rejection into the surface waters. This salty water then sinks and mixes to possibly form new water masses. It is an open question as to whether the polynyas of the Arctic can produce enough dense water to form a major portion of the dense water required to drive the thermohaline circulation.


Some polynyas, such as the North Water Polynya in Canada, occur seasonally at the same time and place each year. Because animals can adapt their life strategies to this regularity, these types of polynyas are of special ecological research significance. In winter, marine mammals such as walruses, narwhals and belugas that do not migrate south, remain there. In spring, the thin or absent ice cover allows light in, through the surface layer as soon as the winter night ends, which triggers the early blooming of microalgae that are at the basis of the marine food chain. So, polynyas are suspected to be places where intense and early production of the planktonic herbivores ensure the transfer of solar energy (food chain) fixed by planktonic microalgae to Arctic cod, seals, whales, and polar bears.

Other uses of the term

The term may also refer to:
  • Polynia, or Kane’s Polynia, an open sea around the North Pole that in the 19th century was rumored to exist. “The mystic Polynia, the open sea to the North of Siberia.” The search for this Polar Sea is related to, and comparable with that for the North-West Passage.
polynya in German: Polynja
polynya in French: Polynie
polynya in Dutch: Polinia
polynya in Japanese: ポリニヤ
polynya in Polish: Połynia
polynya in Russian: Полынья
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