Port Lockroy Blog #15: weather watching at 64° south
From hurricane-force winds to glorious hot sunny days, from endless snow to endless rain, the one thing we know is that the weather in Antarctica can change in an instant.
“What’s the weather forecast?” It’s a frequent query from all of us down here in Port Lockroy.
We have experienced different extremes of weather across the season and it is a privilege to be living somewhere so connected to nature in this way. From hurricane-force winds to glorious hot sunny days, from endless snow to endless rain, the one thing we know is that it can change in an instant. We have had many days where we’ve experienced four seasons in one. One day we were moving between flat calm conditions to 30kt (35mph/56km/h) winds every half an hour. The mountains and glaciers which surround Port Lockroy also add to the variety, producing catabatic winds and localized climatic conditions and wonderful cloud formations as they roll over the mountaintops.
Clouds roll over the mountains opposite Port Lockroy (Credit: Clare Ballantyne)
Weather forecasting has been an important aspect of life at Port Lockroy since the base’s inception. In the early years men on base would take measurements every three hours. These detailed insights were used to provide forecasts for the whaling fleets whose taxation allowed the bases to operate. The assigned ‘met man’ would be out in all weather to take recordings. The original anemometer (wind) tower is still standing on the island and celebrated its 70th birthday just a few days ago. Many of the original instruments are also still on display in the museum and often attract lots of attention from visitors as they remember seeing these or using similar instruments themselves in far smaller digital versions.
The original anemometer tower (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
Nowadays we receive a weather forecast from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust office in the UK two to three times a week via email so the forecast is inbound rather than outbound. Our daily routines are dictated by the weather and so it remains a very important aspect of life on base. In the early part of the season, we used to focus on precipitation levels as we had endless days of snow. Then we were lulled into a false sense of security with a span of beautifully calm and sunny days at the end of December – we thought summer had finally arrived!
That’s when we found ourselves up at 3am battling gales and patching up windows in Bransfield House that had been blown out. My most prized possession from the season is the trace we took the day of this storm from the historic barograph in the museum – when the line almost dropped off the bottom of the paper! A visual representation of a key moment in our season. From here, January saw regular gales and heavy rain. We have now become accustomed to preparing for bad weather. Alongside the email forecast, we also use a few other systems to help us prepare and understand what is happening outside, both modern and historic.
Port Lockroy's historic barograph still works (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
One of our favourite activities is taking a look at the barograph (which recorded the record low trace during the storm mentioned) in the science room of Bransfield House. Whilst sharing stories of past scientific research with visitors we all take a peek at the prevailing atmospheric conditions. The barograph is one of the historic artefacts in the museum which still works. It has a pen which traces the pressure and we’ve had some steep descents and steep ascents recorded. At the moment we are feeling calmer as a relatively flat line is showing. We often update each other about the prevailing conditions during visits.
The storm that blew out the windows (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
We also spend quite a bit of time discussing the upcoming weather with visiting expedition teams. We often get our early warning from ships of impending poor weather as bookings disappear and rumours begin to spread of high winds. On board, we often ask to see their forecasts and are sometimes invited onto the bridge to take a look at Windy – the most widely used weather app we’ve come across – to see how deep the upcoming weather systems are: purple = bad!
A few years ago the Trust also installed an automated weather station outside the back of the Nissen Hut where we live. We use this to give us an indication of wind direction and to record wind speeds. It makes a big difference to us in knowing accurately what is going on and supplements our handheld anemometer which we have been holding up to get live windspeeds.
Our 21st-century weather station (Credit: Lucy Bruzzone)
Just a few weeks ago we connected it up to our laptop indoors and after a lesson in data cable creation – lots of orange, blue and white shared on the radio as Natalie connected the ends – we now have a live feed and delight in checking top wind speeds as the building begins to vibrate! So far it seems that our satellite aerial starts vibrating around 20m/s (45mph/72kph).
A snowy scene at Port Lockroy (Credit: Natalie Corbett)
Despite all the modern instruments and feeds we receive, the barograph remains my favourite element of our forecasting toolkit. They have been used at Base A since its opening in the 40s and I’ve been excited to see that all the ships we visit still use them today. So, whilst we are all increasingly focusing on digital technology it remains a lovely ritual to replace the paper, re-ink the pen and watch the needle thread its way across the page. The weather, as in the past continues to dictate our daily routine, so it is nice that we continue these historic activities alongside new approaches.
Happy weather watching!
Lucy Bruzzone, Base Leader, Port Lockroy