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Storms In Antarctica

Friday, 29 September 2000

    We are finally getting a taste of the real Antarctica. Sunday we hit a condition two storm. The temperatures were unusually high, as much as –1°F, but with fairly high winds and a lot of snow. Things have to warm up before it can snow around here. Conditions were about the same when I left for work Monday morning.

McMurdo in a condition two storm
McMurdo in a condition two storm
McMurdo in a condition two storm

    Sometime during the morning it changed to a condition one storm. The visibility was between 0–50 feet. Everyone on base had to be accounted for so our pagers and telephones were all going off. This started happening at lunch time so we all headed over to the galley. Just as we walked in the power went off. We were told to stay in the galley until the search and rescue team had put up ropes between all the buildings. About the time lunch was over the power came back on, so a couple of us went back to work, even though most people in a condition one storm just stay home and stay put. We had not been back at work for more than 45 minutes when the power went out again. This time it stayed out for quite some time.

McMurdo in a condition one storm
McMurdo in a condition one storm
McMurdo in a condition one storm. This photo is the same
          								      as the one before it, but with less visibility

    According to the guys at the power station, the radiators which cool the generators had frozen up with all the blowing snow. It was more than they could handle, so there was no way of cooling the generators. When they reached their high heat limit they shut down.

Water plant (L) and Power plant (R)
Power plant showing radiators

We have six large generators but rarely need more than three at any given time. They had tried to power up the remaining generators but the power surge of starting the entire town at one time, plus the snow which had piled up was just too much for them. Most of the firefighters were called out to go shovel snow away from the radiators. There are a couple of buildings in town which have their own generators so at least we would have a place to go if our dorms all got too cold. Finally they got the power up and running and several hours later we are still in good shape.

    As you can imagine, losing power down here can really create havoc. Not only does it mean that we have no lights or communications, it also means we have no heat. The heat trace lines which keep the water and sewer pipes from freezing also go out. If those stay out for very long pipes begin to freeze and burst and things can get bad very quickly. If that happens it can take weeks to repair.

    It is easy to see how people get lost and blown away in storms like this. The winds were between 35–50 miles per hour and gusting up to 90 miles per hour. It is very difficult to stand up in winds like that. I had to try a few times and was glad there was a rope to hold on to.

Trying to remain standing in a condition one storm

There was a lot of snow falling and tons of snow blowing around, so the visibility was at 0 much of the time. You would look out of a window and not be able to see the building next door which is only a few feet away.

The building next door in condition two is not 
												 at all visible in a condition one.

Walking outside you can get turned around very easily, and there are no landmarks to see. There are lights in the middle of town which light up with yellow lights signifying a condition two and red lights signifying condition one. They may as well not bother with the red lights because if the weather is that bad you can't see them anyway.

    While the power was out and we could no longer get any work done, we went home. Just getting there in this wind is quite a chore. Even holding on to the ropes it is sometimes difficult to walk.

Following the ropes between the buildings
Walking in the storm

One staircase going into a building was so covered with snow that I went down it like a sliding board.

    Tuesday was just as bad. This storm was relentless. Snow was piled up so high outside many buildings that you had to dig your way out.

Snow piled up outside the door
Snow on the porch
Snow on the stairs
Dorm 203 after the storm

It also came in all the little cracks and crevices inside the buildings. Inside surfaces of doors and windows were covered with frost and snow.

The inside of the door

The temperature outside got up as high as +14°F. It was surprisingly warm. And the snow hitting your face felt very wet. The wind chill did not seem to cut right through you like it normally does. You also have to watch out for things blowing around. We try to keep things tied down around here, but this wind is amazing. Of course visibility was almost nothing so I don't guess you would see anything until it hit you anyway.

    By Tuesday evening the storm was gone. It left quite suddenly. It was amazing to see all the debris and snowdrifts around town.

Snow on the porch roof
Snow between the water plant and the power plant
Stairs buried in the snow

Some of the after effects include icicles which formed at an angle due to the high winds.

Slanted icicles
Slanted icicles

Even the gratings did not escape from piles of snow.

Snow on the gratings

    A couple of us decided to take a walk up to the greenhouse and enjoy a little tropical weather after that storm. We had to dig way down into the snow to even find the door of the greenhouse. It was 80+ degrees inside with a very high humidity content. Lovely. There are even a few hammocks around that you can lie in and just enjoy the climate.

Flowers in the greenhouse
Lying in hammocks in the greenhouse

    Unfortunately a few weeks ago someone failed to make sure that the greenhouse door was closed tightly and many of the plants froze. There is only a small selection growing right now. There are a few tomato plants, several pepper plants, a citrus tree of some kind and some pansies, marigolds and nasturtiums.

Greenhouse peppers
Pansies and marigolds in the greenhouse
Pansies in the greenhouse

    Finally on Wednesday the sun came out. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, but quite cold once again. And the wind was still quite gusty. I finally was able to go hiking again at lunch time, but that was quite a challenge. The snow has all turned to ice and walking is very difficult. It is like a skating rink out there. You never know when that gust of wind is going to send you flying. And I mean flying. One second you are upright and the next you are flat on the ground. I think most everyone has slipped a few times today. Even one of the vans slid into a building. The wind was amazingly cold. It seemed to really cut right through your clothes. Several hours after hiking my legs were still tingly from the cold.

    I found the whole experience quite exciting. There is another storm predicted to hit soon. We will see what that brings.

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Irma Hale
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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