Antarctic Weathers Fantastic Windchill

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Need a good place to chill out this summer?

Try Antarctica. It's winter now in the world's coldest, windiest, most hostile continent.

Down here in the world capital of cold, they heat the refrigerators. Ice cream stored outside the U.S. research base in the South Pole's natural deep freeze must be microwaved before eating.

The cold of winter at the southernmost point on Earth assumes dimensions that words like frigid, glacial and freezing cannot begin to describe.

The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, 128.6 degrees below zero, occurred in 1983 at Russia's Vostok Station, located about 840 miles from the Pole at a higher altitude.

In the Antarctic the cold temperatures combine with the strong winds, which can howl at 200 m.p.h., to create fantastic windchill indexes.

At the Amundsen-Scott Station, the U.S. scientific research facility here, the year-round average temperature is minus 57 degrees. Monthly averages range from 15 below zero at the height of the southern summer in December and January to 82 below zero in the winter months of July, August and September.

The South Pole icecap--15,000 feet thick in some places--is the world's largest expanse of ice, far larger than at the North Pole. It covers 5.3 million square miles, about 97.3% of the continent. That's an area almost as big as the United States and Mexico combined.

There's good reason to worry about even partial melting of the ice sheet by the greenhouse effect. The ice contains 90% of all the world's fresh water. Melted and returned to the oceans, it would raise sea levels by about 200 feet, inundating many coastal areas.

The ice reflects 80% to 85% of incoming sunlight. The result is a rapid loss of incoming solar radiation that otherwise would warm the surface. During the winter here, there is no sunlight, and the skies tend to be clear--ideal conditions for heat loss to space.

Snow at the pole is scarce. "Actual snowflakes have never been observed at the South Pole," Robert Koney, the meteorologist in charge of the weather station here, said. "It is literally too cold to snow."

Such desert-like conditions bring the equivalent of only 2 to 3 inches of melted precipitation to the South Pole each year. Precipitation is in the form of ice crystals or small granules of snow.

It's also too cold for precipitation to melt. It continually accumulates, adding to the ice cover. The altitude at the Amundsen-Scott Station is 9,301 feet--atop solid ice.

Under a 1959 treaty, scientists from 25 nations conduct various kinds of research in Antarctica.

As people in the sunny Northern Hemisphere flock to beaches, pools and back yards in search of a cooling breeze, about 20 hardy Americans are snugly holed up for the dark winter inside the Amundsen-Scott Station.

The station is named after Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who was the first person to reach the Pole in 1911, and Robert Falcon Scott, the British runner-up who paid with his life, freezing to death the next year.

Scientists at the station live and work in a cluster of small prefabricated buildings enclosed by a gleaming 21,000-square-foot aluminum geodesic dome about 40 feet high and 150 feet in diameter.

The National Science Foundation manages American activities in the Antarctic, an effort known as the U.S. Antarctic Research Program. It involves the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, private contractors and hundreds of scientists who conduct research on many subjects, including ozone depletion, glaciology and astronomy.

Weather permitting, ski-equipped U.S. Air Force LC-130 transports, the South Pole's link with the outside world, occasionally fly in with people and supplies from the main American base at McMurdo Sound, about 800 miles away, on Ross Island.

"A plane might be able to land safely in the winter, but it would never take off," said the NSF's John Lynch. "Its fuel would gel in the cold, and it and the crew would have to stay for the winter."

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