Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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A wind-whipped flag at McMurdo. Click for a larger image.

Finally, Some Real Antarctic Weather

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Predicting the weather in Antarctica is challenging. Like weather forecasters everywhere, Jim and Clyde depend on observations from remote sites and satellites to help them with their computer models. But there are only 13 weather observation stations on the continent, and the polar weather satellites don’t provide continuous coverage (they go out of sight for a couple of hours every afternoon).

That means that weather can sneak up on Antarctica, sometimes with little warning. The station does have a new experimental weather model developed for them by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, but the model needs accurate and sufficient data to make good predictions. Still, Chester told me it’s performing well in smaller windows, although accurate 5-day weather forecasts remain a dream here.

In the short term, veterans take weather predicting into their own hands when they venture out on the ice. Because most of the storms come from the Ross Sea to the south, the savvy ice travelers tend to look to "Hurbie Alley" for dark clouds that signal bad weather is on the way. Hurbie Alley is located in a gap between two local landmarks, the somewhat unimaginatively named Black Island and White Island. When I asked why it was called Hurbie, our sea ice instructor said it was named for the hurricane force winds that blow through it. Whatever the reason, Hurbie Alley is where the storms funnel onto the sea ice surrounding McMurdo, and when you see one coming you have only an hour or two to make it back to town.

Another weather phenomenon unique to Antarctica is katabatic wind. Katabatics are gravity-assisted winds that flow down the ice from the middle of the continent. They start when a high-pressure system develops in the high plateau and air starts spilling down the sloping continent, warming and quickening as it moves. On the clearest of blue-sky days, these winds can descend down to the coastline and whip into McMurdo. Karen Joyce told me she was once running along the sea ice road to the Willie Field airstrip when a katabatic came in and she was thrown off her feet. She only managed to keep from skidding along the ice by grabbing one of the flags that mark the road and hanging on for dear life until someone drove by in a Spryte.

We haven’t seen any katabatic winds yet, and the blizzard is receding into memory with the return of blue skies and sunshine. I’m glad for the good weather, though: We don’t want to get bumped again for our trip to the South Pole, one of the coldest and highest points on the continent. But it’s also the location of some cutting-edge research in particle physics and cosmology.

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