Tuesday, February 9, 2010
THE WINDS OF THE ANTARCTIC
The waters of the Arctic can be as quiet as a lake and in a matter of minutes the air is full of extraordinary pressure and a gale that has you hanging on to the ship.
Our ship rides comfortably in the water because of its weight and the skill of the crew on the bridge but it’s like have a large sail above the water line with a keel that cannot run deep enough to resist the push across the surface of the water by the 50 knot winds that spring up. In fact, we changed course yesterday and bypassed ice berg alley because we were traveling sideways faster than we were going forward.
This morning I stood at the bow of the ship with my back to the wind and, with my arms outstretched, leaned backwards into the wind, and I was held fast and could feel the give and push of its force; I resisted risking too great an angle
Later in the day, when the wind pressed anew on the ship, this massive ship tilted at 6 degrees, prompting some small panic on board, water spilled from pools and tubs, dishes slid across tables and fell to the floor, and the captain issued warnings about walking on the top decks: “hold onto the rails if you do.” There was an advisory not to let the wind close the doors on your hands.
This wind came at us at 80 knots.
We were headed toward Neumayer Channel, north of the Antarctic peninsula, but the substantial force of the wind in that tight passage made any attempt foolhardy, in the words of the Captain, and so we backed out of the katabatic wind.
There’s a name for everything in Antarctica.
There are 100s of words for every variation of snow and ice – and the old hands can distinguish one from the other with ease.
Wind is no different.
As I’ve indicated in an earlier blog, we are in an in between place where the northerly waters around the world come in contact with the circumpolar waters of Antarctica.
Simarly, there are a powerful set of winds called the katabatic winds.
These are powerful gravity driven winds that have stronger inertial energy than other winds.
These winds descend from the inland snowfields toward the coast.
They scour the surface snowfields as they approach the coast and that makes them cold and they entrain a considerable volume of snow which gives them inertia, a thickness that makes them slow to warm when they do come to the cost.
When these winds drop from the plateau to the coast, the steepest descent, the winds can reach staggering velocities.
That how we found ourselves punched up and about by winds at 80 knots. When a cyclone and a katabatic shake hands, watch out. They act in concert.
What’s so amazing is how calm and comfortable it will feel standing outside, and then the waves have white tops, and wind is blowing and the ship is tilting.
The winds are fierce or muted – and there’s little in between.