A few notes on the Antarctic cold…

by wonderfullyrich on November 11, 2005

As I have spend a few weeks here now–I’m 25 percent done with my station tour–I wanted to comment on the weather down here.  I’ve had lots of questions about what the weather is like down here.  Here’s a few:  Does it snow?  For those of you in a tropical climate, how long does it take to prepare to go outside?  How cold does it actually get?  Aren’t you always cold? etc. etc. All this comes to mind as we have a summer storm today.

In answer, here’s a brief overview of the climate around here starting with today’s weather (the reason I thought about this).  Right now in the surrounding area it’s condition 1, 2, and 3.  McMurdo Station is Condition 3 (visibility up to and beyond 1/4), outside of town on the Ice runway and various points near town it’s Condition 2 (less then 1/4 visibility), and it’s Condition 1 at the Pegasus runway and Williams Field Runway (less then 100 feet of visibility).  The temperature outside is  +12 degrees ambient, and -20 with wind chill, although it’d doesn’t feel that cold having walked around most of the morning.  It’s blowing snow all over the place and the Fleet ops people aren’t going to be happy, but we are all pretty comfy right now.  In addition no flights are going to South pole or the deep field sites today because of the weather so it’s kind of a slow Saturday.  Oh and our day off is going to suck given that the weather supposed to come back tomorrow, many of us wanted to go hiking.  🙁

A storm like this can be a bit of a different story during the winter (when it’s dark) as they tell you not to forget your Extreme Cold Weather gear (ECW) or keep it at work because when a storm comes up, it goes from being -40 degrees ambient to -70 or more with wind chill.  And in addition to this the storms tend to sneak up on you if your not paying attention to the McMurdo weather channel given that it’s dark out so you’ve can’t really see a coming storm, except by moon light and starlight (this is my understanding of it at least). 

Obviously it’s not quite the same in the austral summer (now, when it’s light out).  We’ve had several storms already and they don’t really creep up on us, but they can be a surprise if your not watching.  I was up on Ob Hill yesterday taking pictures and watching a range of mountains called Minna Bluff to the south where the weather generally comes from and saw this one coming.  Now McMurdo is a place where if you wait 5 mins the weather can change, while I was up on Ob Hill, it went from being an ambient +20 with little to no wind to -20 wind chill or so (my guess) with a 10-15 knot wind.  This is the reason we are told to watch Minna Bluff when we are out on hikes or outside the town because if you can’t see the range, that means you have 2-3 hours to get home and conditions will deteriorate as you move. (see this map for an idea of where minna bluff is) http://wonderfullyrich.smugmug.com/gallery/876472/2/43518426

So what is a summer storm?  In my mind it’s sort of like a windfest.  Condition 2 means that we can move from building to building, but we can’t leave town.  Moving in a storm like that can be like being in one of those videos of people walking into the wind and having to lean 20-40 degrees into to stay upright.  It tends to move huge piles of snow around town and can make landing planes on the ice runway (or any of our 3 runways) interesting or impossible, but its just a pain and is not debilitating.  (See my happy camper post for a comparison of Condition 3 to Condition 2).

Condition 1 can be a different story.  You do not want to be outside in Condition 1 unless your crazy.  The reason is because it’ll blow you off your feet and throw you around.  It’s sort of like being in a snow hurricane (at least if your on the ice).  In town it rattles doors, and seeps snow in everywhere, which is why most every door has a vestibule.  During Condition 1 your not supposed to move building to building.  You stay put till a change in conditions is called.  This is a big pain, because you might end up staying in your building for a while, missing work (yea!), missing dinner (ah darn), missing sleep (grumble), etc.  At some point they do get the Search and Rescue team (SAR) to tie people together and walk them to the galley or a dorm.  This is a rare thing, but probably happens once or twice a year by my understanding.

Does it snow? Not really, it’s more of a pushing around of snow that’s already here.  The annual precipitation around here is 7.8 mm so the accumulation we are getting is stuff from the surrounding ice.  Something to keep in mind that just like Denver is different from Orlando in weather, Palmer station is different from McMurdo, which is different from South Pole Station.  Palmer’s above the 60th Parallel (above the Antarctic Circle) and it actually rains there a some points of the year, McMurdo it never rains and is at the 80th Parallel, and my understanding is that South Pole is -30 to -50 ambient during the summer.  I have an overlay of the size of Antarctica verse the Continental US overlaid.  http://wonderfullyrich.smugmug.com/gallery/876472/2/43518480 (Click on the big picture to enlarge it)

Now am I always cold?  Being the skinny bastard I am one would think that I would be, but the answer is emphatically no.  I realized something coming down here.  All the years of being cold in Denver was a lack of proper clothing and not a question of body fat or alike.  I’ve previously outlined what I wear here, but as a brief overview, even now during the spring I’m wearing long underwear top and bottoms, jeans, a tee-shirt, plus Big Red (the standard issue large coat), wool socks and either tennies or hiking boots (you can see this here http://wonderfullyrich.net/Photos/theice/60southvideos.html#CDC ).  With this, if I move a lot (like run or hike up Ob Hill) I’ll be sweating, but otherwise I’m plenty comfy moving in and out of buildings. 

Someone asked how long it takes to prepare to go outside. It doesn’t really take that long.  Prepared as I am underneath, all I have to do is grab Big Red of the coat hook, put him on and I’m out the door.  (Remember he’s got gloves, hats, and shades for me to apply if necessary)  I hear that this routine will change as the year progress.  (For some it has already)  Instead of Big Red, I’ll be heading out with a wind breaker and my shades.  With an ambient temperature near 40 degrees, it’ll be balmy around here. 🙂  I’ll probably stop wearing my long underwear eventually this season too, but that’ll probably be just the time around new years (our hottest time of the year).

One thing that won’t change is my need for sun glasses.  From the moment you start this program, they remind you that A. you will live under the Ozone hole (it’s only here during austral winter and spring, I’ll try and post video of science lecture we had on the Ozone hole), B. that a majority of what we look at is reflective (i.e. snow and ice) and your never really looking away from the sun.  This means that UV rays which causes snow blindness is always a threat during the time the sun is visible (windfly, aka early spring, to early fall).  Just to review, snow blindness is basically sunburn retinas.  Just like skin, it takes a few days to recover from, but is not fatal (unless you need them).  Sunglasses then are necessary for day to day life down here. 

One interesting digression about the sun is that I know what time of day it is because of where the sun is during the day.  As I walk out of building 120’s door to lunch or to work, I will find the sun in my eyes and bearing me down.  Needless to say I’m immediately reminded to wear my shades if I’ve not put them on before hand.  If I go back to the office to type after-hours then the sun is behind the building.  I’ll still want shades when I walk out at 4am or at 10pm, but the sun will be obscured differently during the day.  Just like you guys at home, we do use the sun to tell time around here, it’s just not quite as vertical for us.  (It never reaches vertical and generally just hovers above the mountains around us.)

I’ll leave you with a quote of what I said to my mentor Bill a week after I got here:

        Oh and the cold is nothing… Yes it’s summer and yes I haven’t seen condition 1 but, the Seattle freaks are weenies.  Colorado has it’s days that have me used to this and I love the sun being out as long as it is.  (it doesn’t freak  me out to walk out when it’s light out and it’s 10+ pm at night, I’m loving it.)  Besides all that, if you do it right the ECW and a little common sense keeps you as warm as you could want to be (or cool inside too).  All your tips and tricks are working out great, but I have to say that next time someone new comes down, don’t forget to have them bring a towel…  Yes I forgot one, and yes I found/washed one in skua.  🙂


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