Weather in Antarctica
Dramatic seasons, harsh temperatures, and impressive winds all help make the Great White Continent one of the most fascinating locations for extreme weather.
If you've never visited a polar destination, you're probably wondering what you can expect, weather-wise. Even if you've spent time above the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic is a completely different experience. The high elevation and large landmass makes this southern region significantly colder than the north. Of course, temperature is only one piece of the Antarctic weather puzzle; here's an overview of what you should expect of weather in Antarctica.
Antarctica has only two seasons: summer and winter. Because of its location in the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctica's summer is from October through February. During this time, the sun is almost always in the sky; days rapidly get longer until, eventually, the sun doesn't set at all. This phenomenon is called the Midnight Sun. Although there are multiple places in the Northern Hemisphere that experience this perpetual sunlight during half of the year, Antarctica is the only southern location where it can be seen.
January is the warmest month in Antarctica, during which average temperatures climb all the way up to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Average highs through the rest of the summer can be as low as 28 degrees.
If anyone is in Antarctica once winter comes, they're staying until summer returns. Flights and ships cease travel to and from Antarctica once the weather starts to turn, as conditions become too treacherous for travel. Typically, researchers are the only people who brave the Antarctic night. A valuable time for astronomers, they can use the complete darkness to get spectacular views of the skies. Climatologists are also busy during this time of year, tracking and comparing the temperatures on and below the continent's surface.
As you'd imagine, Antarctic winter is a bit chilly. In the coldest months of the year, average highs only reach about 18 degrees. That said, the constant night means there's only a 5-10 degree difference between the highs and lows.
If you think of the Antarctic continent as a constant mass of furious snow storms, think again. While blizzards do happen in the South Pole, they're few and far between, and they're typically due to winds blowing loose snow, rather than new snow falling. Snow doesn't fall fresh very often—the continent only gets an average of two inches of precipitation each year. Antarctica is technically a desert, and a particularly dry one at that, due to the face that cold air simply can't hold much water. There's no precipitation without humidity, and there's no humidity without heat.
You might wonder why the continent is covered in snow if it rarely falls; despite the fact that there isn't much precipitation per year, the temperatures don't rise high enough for the snow to melt away. Anything that does fall gets accumulated until it's packed into ice.
The dramatic elevation differences throughout Antarctica lead to impressive and harrowing wind speeds. The continent's coastal regions experience what's known as katabatic winds, or winds that flow down slopes to the areas below. These gusts come roaring through the flatter, lower parts of Antarctica, and regularly reach up to 62 mph. Although that's the average, the air can—and does—move a whole lot quicker. It's not unusual to see speeds up to 100 mph, and the highest wind speed ever recorded on the continent was 199 mph! Interestingly, the South Pole's high elevation means it doesn't get particularly high winds itself—the average wind speed there is only 12 mph.