Katabatic Winds

Can you imagine relaxing on a ship in coastal waters with calm weather or only light winds and then being hit unexpectedly by hurricane force winds?It would be quite a surprise!Certain coastal areas in Antarctica can be calm for much of the time until hit by a katabatic wind.Before slamming into your ship, the air in that katabatic wind was at a higher elevation on the slope of a tall mountain or a high glacial valley.As that air cooled, it became denser than the air below it and began to “flow” down the mountain towards your unsuspecting vessel.For that reason katabatic winds are sometimes called down slope wind orfall winds.How strong can these winds be?Douglas Mawson, a famous Australian explorer, recorded frequent gusts of more than 150 miles per hour (240 kph) at his Cape Denison base in 1912.

If you’re thinking about exploring Antarctica, however, the occasional katabatic winds aren’t the only winds that should concern you.Antarctica is the windiest of the continents and some coastal areas endure almost constant strong winds.Over the two years Mawson spent recording wind speeds at Cape Denison, the average wind speed was 45 mph (72 kph).

Why is Antarctica so windy?In addition to global wind currents, Antarctica creates its own wind systems.Cold air slides down the ice plateau, gaining speed as it leaves the high interior ice fields and descends to the lower areas near the coasts.These winds can form impressive clouds of blowing snow that reach high into the air.Winds this strong, combined with cold temperatures, would quickly freeze any human’s exposed skin.


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