Why is Antarctica so windy? Considering the freezing temperatures and blinding snowstorms, it is a marvel that anyone can live in Antarctica.
The persistent winds, though, are possibly Antarctica’s most infamous meteorological feature.
And this often begs the question, “Why is Antarctica so cold dry, and windy?”
Surely, it is not because it has so many penguins and they are always flapping their wings. There has to be something else, right?
Antarctica has a cold, dry, and windy climate mainly due to its polar location and the katabatic winds that blow down from the continent’s high elevation.
Why is Antarctica So Windy?
The Antarctic, the world’s southernmost continent, is well-known for its extreme and unforgiving weather.
The constant wind is one of the most striking features of this cold desert.
Despite the harsh conditions, it is fascinating to see so many species managing to survive on this continent.
Some of them include the following:
- And types of seabirds!
The emperor penguin and the humpback whale are two examples of species that have adapted to Antarctica.
But, others, such as the southern right whale, travel there to feed on the rich food supply.
So, yes, the climate in Antarctica is rather intimidating, and those cold, dry winds have a significant role to play here.
Fact: Antarctica's ice sheet is the world's largest and that huge ice sheet contains an astonishing 60-90% of the world's fresh water.
Here are a few reasons why Antarctica is so dry and windy:
Antarctica’s unusual topography is a major contributor to the continent’s windy weather.
Large and high, the continent is blanketed in a thick layer of ice. Cold, thick air can condense here because of the high altitude and the large ice sheet.
The air above the Antarctic ice sheet is forced upwards because of its average thickness of 2,160 meters.
The air cools and grows denser the higher it travels, forcing it to fall back to Earth’s surface.
This region of high pressure is known as the Antarctic High and is caused by the sinking of thick air.
Strong winds are produced as air is forced from the continent’s core toward the coastlines due to the pressure gradient caused by this high-pressure system.
Gravity-driven katabatic winds are one of the main causes of the high wind speeds in Antarctica.
These winds are generated by cold, dense air traveling downhill. The air across the continent gets heavier and denser as it cools down.
Gravity pulls this frigid, dense air towards the surface of the Earth, where it flows along the ice sheet’s undulating topography.
Due to the large temperature and elevation variations between the interior and the coastlines, katabatic winds can be quite powerful in Antarctica.
Speeds of more than 160 kilometers per hour are not uncommon for the frigid air as it rushes downhill.
Fact: Research stations and expeditions around Antarctica face a huge challenge from these high winds, which can create blizzard-like conditions.
Polar Jet Stream
A fast-moving air current that circles the poles, the polar jet stream, also adds to Antarctica’s breezy climate.
The jet stream originates where arctic air meets more temperate mid-latitude air.
The jet stream is formed when the two air masses have a significant temperature difference.
And the strength of the jet stream is proportional to this temperature difference.
The polar jet stream, which moves from west to east, directs storms away from land.
Its location and strength can affect the frequency and severity of storms that reach Antarctica, which in turn affects the windiness of the continent as a whole.
Winds in Antarctica are often influenced by cyclones and anticyclones, two of the continent’s meteorological systems.
Stormy weather, heavy rain, and high winds are all possible outcomes of cyclones, low-pressure systems that develop over the Southern Ocean.
Wind speeds increase when these cyclones approach the continent due to the pressure gradient between the low-pressure system and the high-pressure Antarctic High.
But anticyclones, which are high-pressure systems, can bring calm and sunny weather.
Yet, the pressure gradient between the anticyclone and the surrounding low-pressure zones can also lead to the emergence of powerful katabatic winds.
Fact: Scientists have found that the climate in Antarctica has not always been the same, and the temperatures might have been around 17C about 40-50 million years ago.
The enormous ice sheet, which covers nearly the whole continent, is an attractive characteristic of Antarctica.
Sections of the sheet are so thick that they are almost 3 kilometers in depth, which is truly staggering.
As a result, the continent sits at an impressively high elevation, about 2,500 meters above sea level on average.
The adiabatic cooling effect, a climatic phenomenon related to Antarctica’s high altitude, is largely responsible for the continent’s icy temperatures.
This effect reflects the trend in air temperature toward lower temperatures at higher elevations.
Rising air cools because its volume increases in response to the decrease in atmospheric pressure.
This is the primary reason why temperatures tend to be lower at greater heights.
Fact: The Vinson Massif, which rises an astounding 4,892 meters, is a prime illustration of the continent's towering peaks.
The high albedo of Antarctica results from its unusual geology and climate.
Huge volumes of snow and ice blanket the continent, reflecting a high percentage of sunlight back into space.
As less solar energy is absorbed due to the high albedo of the surface, the chilly conditions on the continent are maintained.
Antarctica’s high albedo contributes to the global climate system in its own right.
Alterations in snow and ice cover can have an impact on average world temperatures through the ice-Albedo Feedback process.
If, as a result of climate change, snow and ice cover diminish, the albedo also does, and more solar energy is absorbed, leading to higher temperatures, that is only one example.
Above Antarctica is a massive low-pressure system known as the polar vortex that has been there for a long time.
As a result of this weather pattern, powerful westerly winds circumnavigate the continent, cutting it off from warmer air masses.
Strong katabatic winds are formed partly because of these winds, further exacerbating Antarctica’s already frigid conditions.
The air speeds up as it rushes down the steep hills toward the coast, reaching velocities of up to 200 km/h in certain places.
Moving snow and ice from Antarctica’s high interior to its coast, these winds play a significant role in creating the continent’s topography.
An Important Thing to Know
The polar vortex and the katabatic winds it generates are also crucial to the global climate system.
Weather patterns around the world are influenced by Antarctica’s strong winds and low temperatures, which alter ocean currents.
In addition, shifts in the polar vortex’s power or position can have far-reaching effects on weather patterns all over the globe.
Low Humidity and Precipitation
Antarctica is one of the driest regions on Earth due to the combination of low temperatures and limited moisture in the air.
This leads to low humidity levels and minimal precipitation.
Low humidity is the result of Antarctica’s freezing temperatures, which prevent the air from holding much moisture.
When air cools, it loses its capacity to retain moisture, resulting in the condensation of any preexisting moisture into clouds.
Antarctica’s freezing temperatures prevent rain from condensing into droplets and instead produce ice crystals and snow.
In fact, its annual precipitation rate is lower than that of the Sahara, making it the world’s largest desert.
Dry conditions, exacerbated by the region’s low precipitation, can make survival in Antarctica difficult.
An Important Consideration
Despite the arid circumstances, Antarctica remains a vital part of the global climate system.
The frozen ice sheets serve a crucial role in regulating global sea levels and also store crucial information about past climatic changes.
Fact: Antarctica is classified as a desert because of its low humidity and freezing temperatures.
Why is Antarctica so windy? The continent of Antarctica is well-known for its icy climate and parched landscape, and that windy climate is the result of many factors.
Both Antarctica’s polar location and the katabatic winds that flow down from the continent’s high elevation contribute to the continent’s windy environment.
The climate is quite challenging due to factors, including the continent’s unusual geography, the polar jet stream, weather systems, etc.
Truly, the weather here is unlike anywhere else on Earth, but learning about it is crucial to studying our planet’s climate.