Authored by Jill Peeters
We experienced some fascinating weather on our passage from The Falklands to Antarctica.
The Drake Passage between the most Southern Part of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is known for its ‘Drake Shake’ or ‘Drake Lake’ versions. We certainly experienced the shaky one, with many hours of waves up to 6-8 metres.
Our Captain had to change course to avoid the worst of a storm overnight, deviating to a more westerly course. This meant we didn’t visit Elephant Island as originally planned because it was in the middle of a bizarre wind field. It was bizarre, our Captain, with years of experience, had never seen these kinds of strong winds predicted over such a long period of time. And the further challenge was that the weather didn’t stick to the prediction.
This experience prompted us to try to find out more about what was going on with the weather. We could start a whole study, but that would have taken us months to analyse all the data, so we first checked our network of experts. Jill, our onboard meteorologist in the Homeward Bound team, quickly gathered a few interesting insights through her network of weather people.
Apparently, the meteorological situation we experienced was not totally new for this region. We can explain it in two steps. First, a low-pressure system went through the Drake passage a few days earlier. And then, while this low moved towards the southeast, there was an extensive powerful high-pressure cell forming in the region between the Peninsula and Ushuaia. Between those two robust structures a wind came through from the south-southeast. This wind came straight from the Weddell Sea, towards our ship. Almost gale winds were predicted (7 Beaufort Scale, up to 74km/h or 40 knots) and we ended up having wind gusts up to 115km/h. This wind interacted with the Peninsula Mountains leading to rotor turbulence or rotor waves, causing exceptionally strong gusts of wind in the Drake Passage. Earlier on our trip we could already see some wavy structures in the clouds, giving an indication of the winds on higher levels (see photo).
Photo Credit: Jill Peeters
While we were heading to the South, through rough waters, we could see more extremes on the frozen continent, with unusually warm weather. For example, on the Union Glacier temperatures measured -5 to -10°C; a significant deviation from the typical -25°C this time of the year.
So, the news that we all, as humanity, recorded our first ‘+2 degrees’ on the 18th of November (compared to the 1850-1900 IPCC baseline) really resonates with us. And what we’ve experienced until now is that climate change is more than just ‘global warming’. The climate is disrupted, and the chaos in the atmosphere is really getting out of hand.
Of course, we explored the question of whether our ‘our extreme wind event’ was caused by climate change, or not. We tend to only link extreme weather events with climate change when ‘it is proven’. We count on the attribution science for this. But from what Jill has seen and learnt through the last years, we are IN the era of climate change, where we see that the extremes are becoming more extreme. And from what we as scientists know, it is not because the mean temperature is rising, this means that every day from now on will be warmer than the day before. Something to think about.