Antarctica is the most isolated, cold, dry and windiest part of the planet. Hardly you’ll going to get someone here looking for a good surf point or a mojito bar.
In this little bit of Antarctica that I’ve come to call home, wind is the feature that stands out the most, and not by a small measure.
Around here never rains and hardly snows. I can use the fingers in my hand to count the number of times that I’ve seen snow falling around here. I mean, like “stay at home looking melancholic by the window with a mug of hot chocolate” or “Look! Its Christmas again” kinda snow. When something fall out of the sky it is normally accompanied by 40 to 90 km/h winds that trow whatever is falling straight at people’s faces and shove it down every sleeve, boots or necks.
Storms in Halley are like this: the sky begins to become covered with low altitude clouds (Bad weather stratocumulus as the experts call them) and the wind picks up speed. With any luck you can see a few minutes of soft falling snow, just like in the movies, but an hour later we can barely see the big yellow and green tractor that’s just 100 meters away from us.
The thing about strong winds around here is that they can easily blow the fresher snow from the surface and create a sort of cloud composed of snow particles that sometimes can be projected above our heads.
On those days, and mainly during Winter, when we cannot afford playing around with the wind tunnel, life around the base gets quite conditioned.
With 30 knot winds (56 km/h. Around here we use nautical lingo for these things) we are not allowed to leave the base perimeter, since we cannot see the cabooses even. Happened to me once, to be out there over one of my radars, when the weather was still so-so, but the wind picked up heavily while I was inside the caboose and when I got out of it, I couldn’t see more than 100 meters in any direction. The route from these cabooses to the station is filled with a black flag every 200 meters or so. At least I knew to which way I should be pointing to but between each flag it was all intuition a bit of high school geometry. But, after a few curious minutes, I finally got to see the station’s search lights.
With 40 knots (about 75 km/h) we aren’t allowed on the interconnecting bridge that goes to the labs. With that speed we normally get gusts of 50 (92 km/h) to 55 knots (102 km/h), which can push a lighter person of the bridge if caught unaware. As for me, I think I had enough cake around here so far to be safe from such thing, but rules are like rain and when they fall, they are for everyone outside.
Above 55 knots (102 km/h) we aren’t allowed out of the modules even, since visibility is reduced to a few meters in front of us. All it takes is to take a few steps away from the station to loose sight of it. If we then loose out sense of direction, we can easily spend a couple of hours completely lost, going in circles in the snowy blizzard, with the station just 200 meters from us.
During my Cambridge days we got trained in a few survival techniques for those situations. We used to go around with buckets over our head to simulate the lack of visibility. True story!
The most interesting meteorologic sonde throws that I did happened in a Sunday morning in which I woke up with my room shaking slightly from a 35 knot storm that had developed during the “night”. (It was all dark around that time, so “night” is a strange concept in that part of the year)
Right there I realized that it was going to be “one of those days”. But 35 knots is nothing to intrepid antarctic heroes such as us and as such I went to the lab side of the station to set up the sonde and balloon. During the half hour that it took me to configure everything, the wind picked up some speed and when I left the station to the caboose where we keep the helium canisters, it was raging at 48 knots (89 km/h). Since it was Sunday morning, right in the middle of Winter, there was no one awake to warn me about it and there I was, in the middle of all the darkness, sonde and balloon well tucked inside the pockets, guided by a faint porch light and a rope connecting both structures, walking in a 45º angle to compensate the westerly wind that was trying to drag me all the way up to the ocean. Fortunately the caboose is just 50 meters away from the South end of the station.
It was the most surreal 50 meters of my life. It took me almost 10 minutes to get through them but I loved each one. Unique extreme experiences tend to do that to weird people.
The balloon was actually ripped off from my hands as soon as I opened the caboose door. It was literally sucked through the wind vortex that was getting formed around the caboose and went pretty much horizontal across the snowy landscape.
I then did another surreal trip back to the modules, only to find out that the sonde had stopped transmitting about 30 seconds after I launched it. Expectable actually. In these days, all you can do it try and not much more than that.
A week later I found out that the balloon got crashed against another of my radar cabooses, about a kilometer away from were I had launched it. That caboose is 4 meters high tops. The wind was so strong that the poor balloon couldn’t even rise 4 meters in about a whole kilometer horizontally and smashed the precious sonde against this one’s metal walls.
But the same wind can also create all sorts of rare phenomenons that we can hardly see outside of this place, specially in a quasi tropical country such as Portugal.
One of the most interesting is the “Diamond Dust”. When its really cold, like -35 ºC cold, there’s a bit of fog in the air, clear skies, a bit of Sun and wind with the right amount of speed, which rarely happens by the way, the water particles floating around freeze into very small ice crystals that hang around, dancing on the wind, reflecting the sunlight in all directions. This reflection creates loads of sparkling dots around us and produces an amazing light halo around the sun disk.
When the wind blows above 20 knots, in a place full of loose, sand like snow like this one, we get another effect where the looser snow, dragged by the shallow wind, slithers around the frozen surface. If the Sun is low in the horizon, the dusk or twilight sunlight creates a spectacular effect, worthy of any decent music concert.
But all it takes is for that wind to get a bit more intensity and that same snow is rapidly thrown in our faces, sleeves and the inside of our boots…