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A polynya is an area of water kept relatively clear - much of the time - of sea ice, by a particular kind of polar wind. This katabatic wind blows pretty persistently towards the coast from the polar plateau in the continent's interior. However, routes through polynyas can close within a few hours if the distribution of sea ice in the general area changes with shifts in the wind direction and speed.
The Shokalskiy began to run into trouble towards the end of that day as it attempted to leave the area. Its location was close to the edge of a huge glacial system called the Mertz Glacier where it flows into the sea. Four years ago, the end of this glacier was smashed into many pieces by a gigantic passing iceberg named B09B.
Expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of earth sciences at the University of New South Wales, said that the ice floes that surrounded his ship appeared to have come from the eastern side of the wrecked glacier front.