Dramatic seasons, harsh temperatures and impressive winds all help make Antarctica one of the most interesting weather locations on Earth.
If you've never visited a polar destination, you're probably wondering what you can expect weather-wise when you travel to Antarctica. Even if you've spent time in the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic is an entirely different experience. The high elevation and large landmass makes the south pole significantly colder than the north. Of course, temperature is only one piece of the antarctic weather puzzle. Here's an overview of what weather conditions are like on Earth's southernmost destination:
Antarctica only has two seasons: summer and winter. Because it's located in the southern hemisphere, Antarctica's summer is from October to February. During this time, the sun is almost always in the sky. Days rapidly get longer there in summer, 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 -18 degrees Fahrenheit. Average highs through the rest of the summer can be as low as -40 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. This is a valuable time for astronomers, who can use the complete darkness to get spectacular views of the universe. 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 -75 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 lose snow rather than new snow falling. Snow doesn't fall fresh very often - the continent only gets an average of 2 inches of precipitation each year. Antarctica is technically a dessert, and a particularly dry one at that. This is because the cold air simply can't hold much water. There's no precipitation without humidity, and there's no humidity without heat.
You might be wondering why the continent is covered in snow if it rarely falls. Even though 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 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 about 12 mph.