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What the weather is like

A radiosonde balloon launch at Halley

Have you had any bad snow-storms while you have been there?

Not very bad, about 50 miles per hour wind, whilst in a tent, which seems bad at the time, and the air was more like soup with the snow being blown about, but I never experienced the 100 mph + screaming blizzards that occur in Terra Nova Bay, or Davis bases. I cannot even imagine what these must be like, even after reading "Home of the Blizzard" by Douglas Mawson, which is THE book to take on a camping trip!

How does global warming affect the animals that live in Antarctica?

The main way climate change can affect penguins, for example is though snow at their breeding colonies. When you have heavy snow that lasts longer the birds find it harder to breed as they prefer snow free areas to built their nests.

What weather changes have been noticed over the last 5 years?

Although everyone is talking about "global warming" and "climate change", this is not possible to measure over a short time such as 5 years. If the climate was steady and unchanging, the weather (what happens every day) would still change from day to day, and from year to year. Sometimes you would get a very cold winter, or a dry summer, but this is what we call "natural variability". Seeing a constant change in the same direction is not possible, so we must watch the weather for 10s or 100s of years.....

So, I have noticed many "changes in weather" over the last 5 years, it was very wet this winter, for instance, but I would not say this is "global warming". However, I have data from Halley, Antarctica going back to 1957, and this DOES give us enough information to say there is a change in the climate over 50 years.

I hope this answers you question even though it is complicated, but the subject is not easy!

What's the lowest temperature it has been down there?

I think the lowest temperature recorded in Antarctica is -89.4°C at the Russian base called Vostok. Which is fairly cold.

Is it colder in the day or at night?

Colder at night in general. But not much change from day to night if the sun stays above the horizon all night as it does in the middle of summer.

How do you know when a storm is coming?

When it is not raining or snowing ie in good weather you can see for many tens of miles because the air is so clear. Often you can see 100 miles. Thus it is easy to see bad weather coming in because you can see so far. Our met forecasters also give us forecasts so they may know what may be expected to happen overnight when you are asleep. Satellites also take pictures of the clouds from Space. This clearly shows where the bad weather is.

What is the lowest temperature it can get?

At Vostok, near the middle of the Antarctic, the temperature has dropped to -89.4°C. At these temperatures diesel oil is a solid block. You have to wear a face mask so that the air can heat up a little before it goes down your nose or mouth where it could otherwise literally freeze your lungs.

In the summer what does the temperature get up to?

At Halley, A sizzling plus 0.1°C. Warmer days occur on the Antarctic Peninsula, where there is rock, but over snow it is not possible for the sun to warm the snow above freezing. Occasionally, if we are not careful, the sun warms our thermometers above this, so we must be careful to keep them in the shade all the time.

0.1°C sounds cold, but on a sunny day, with no wind, there is so much sunlight (and too much UV) that you can work in shorts and T shirt outside. With factor 50 sunblock....

What was the temperature when you arrived at your camp and is it warmer or colder now?

We always arrive at the base in early Summer (December in the southern hemisphere), as this is the time when the ship can reach the base through pack ice. Then we either leave again with the ship at the end of summer (in February) or "winter over", in which case you don't see anyone else again until next December. About 16 of use winter over, but the base is busy in summer with about 50 visitors, who arrive to help repair the base, put new experiments in, or replace the old worn out winterers who are ready to go home.

What was the coldest day you have had in Antarctica?

My own experience was in 1991, on a calm August day outside our Halley Station. Some colleagues and I were driving a Sno-cat back from the coast (about 16 km away from the base), when the station meteorologist called on the radio to say we had a new record for the base, as -51.2°C. So of course we all got out of the Sno-cat for a walk.

At Halley the winter temperatures range from -20°C down to the lower -40s (Celsius) but the climate is such that the winds are always much stronger when it is -20°C, and we only get -40°s when the wind is almost still. So its about the same "wind chill" all the time.

How warm was your warmest day in the field?

The warmest day I had was minus 6 degrees centigrade. But it felt quite warm because the sun was shining brightly!

Is the ocean warmer now than it was 100 years ago?

In fact the ocean is warmer than it was 100 years ago. This is true for much of the world. In the Antarctic there is so little data from a century ago that we cannot give a figure. People can be quite clever with met records and we are now convinced that Captain Scott was very unlucky having such low temperatures on his return from the South Pole - if the weather had been more normal the party might have survived.

What is the ozone layer and why has it got a hole in it?

The ozone layer is a region of the high atmosphere that normally has a high concentration of ozone - a special sort of oxygen - molecules. Normally at around 18 km, twice the height of Mount Everest. It is important because without it UltraViolet radiation, which can give you skin cancers, would be much more intense and you would be very nastily burned.

In the Antarctic spring, chemical reactions, which involve the chemicals used in CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) and substances like fire extinguishers, do destroy the ozone molecules. In fact the level of the atmosphere where we expect the greatest number of ozone molecules there are none to be found at al. This is the ozone hole. This happens in the Antarctic spring because of the extreme cold and the return of the Sun after the winter darkness. Nowhere else in the world is cold enough to have an ozone hole, although there are fears that in the future there could be an Arctic Ozone Hole. Currently, chemicals which can destroy ozone are banned and we hope that in 50 years there will be no more ozone holes.

Did the cold conditions make you ill or give you any serious injuries?

Antarctica is very very clean, and we do not tend to suffer from colds, flu or such like. Even hay fever goes away. We do have to look after our teeth, partly because the food is very rich in energy and sugar, and the cold makes you "suck your teeth" in winter. We have a very thorough check-up before we go. Accidents do happen, and so sometimes we have to cope with a broken arm, but the doctor on the base is trained for this.

We have had fatalities in the past, and these we learn from, but now the Antarctic is, in most ways, safer than the UK: we have no traffic accidents, and we are all well trained to cope with the environment.

My main problem is coming home again, and I have to "catch up" on months of flu and colds, getting the whole lot in 1 week.

Was it difficult to adjust to normal temperature when you returned?

No, the physical side of adjusting is quite easy, especially as you return in the UK winter, when the Antarctic is in summer. The temperatures are not so different then. The things that you cannot get used to are:

Traffic going faster that 10 km per hour. Running water from taps which you don't have to replace by digging snow Having a choice of 58 types of toothpaste in the supermarket People being thoughtless and selfish Pubs closing!

What was the average temperature when you were there?

-19.2°C! We know this because if you dig a deep hole in the snow, more than 10 m down, the snow temperature is equal to the average annual temperature. This mean is made up of summer temperatures around -5°C(max is 0.1°C) and winter around -30° (min -52°C).

Did you get used to the conditions?

No! Cold is still cold, you do not acclimatise. You DO get more used to getting your clothing right. What I find most strange is that when I return to the UK, from -5°C in Antarctica (sunny all day, blue skies, sometimes cloudy) to +5°C UK (drizzle and dark) the UK feels so COLD. This is because our clothing in Antarctica is very clean (no mud or muck) and very DRY. This makes it very good at insulating. In the UK, your clothes get damp, and insulation is poor. So do not expect to see returning Antarctic scientists in T-shirts in January - they will be just as wrapped up against the cold as you.

What are the maximum and minimum temperatures where you work in the Antarctic?

The British scientists and support staff working in the Antarctic certainly do not experience the very coldest Antarctic temperatures such as are found in the middle of the continent in winter where temperatures have dropped to -89°C. Our coldest scientists work at Halley station close to the coast of the Weddell Sea where a temperature of -55°C has been recorded.

As for warmth, the warmest air temperatures occur on the Antarctic Peninsula, where at the warmest northern extremity air temperatures of 20°C have been reported. The highest at a British station is around 10°C. The greatest feeling of warmth may actually come on a cooler day! If it is absolutely calm (a rare event) and the sun is shining out of a cloudless sky, the radiation can easily burn the skin unless you are wearing highly efficient suncreams. You can feel absolutely "roasted". This phenomenon has been made more serious by the annual appearance each spring of a hole in the ozone layer which lets in more of the radiation that burns you.

How warm is it inside compared to outside?

Antarctic research stations are well heated. Often they appear to be overheated, and it is a great relief to go out into the fresh, cold and blustery Antarctic air. Inside it is as warm as a well heated British house. Outside the temperature may be as low as -30°C to -50°C. In the middle of summer and when there is no wind blowing (it can happen) the stations really do overheat, and then all the doors and windows are opened and it is often good to get indoors out of the glare of the sun. You all wear very black sunglasses. When you are camping the tent can be extraordinary cold in blizzards since the cold from outside penetrates the tent quickly. Then you stay in your sleeping bag if you are not active. However on still, sunny days the sun heats up the fabric of the tent and the top of the tent becomes unbearably hot. By the ground where you sleep and cook it always stays cold.

What temperatures do they get in Antarctica?

Warmest can be about 6° Celsius on the Antarctic Peninsula in summer (not so bad) coldest ever MEASURED was at Vostok, central Antarctica -89.4° Celsius. There may have been places where it was a bit colder than this.

Coldest I have experienced myself , a relatively mild -52°C, was in winter at Halley, on the coast in southern Weddell Sea. It makes you suck your teeth.