Did you know that Antarctica is actually the largest, windiest desert on Earth?

Building in Antarctica

Did you know that Antarctica is actually the largest, windiest desert on earth? Yes, I said desert – it actually doesn’t snow all that much across the continent; if you melted the snow down, it would average only about 5 inches of water annually, with most of the snow falling near the coasts. But the wind – now that’s something else!  In 1939-1941, Paul Siple and Charles Passel, members of the US Antarctic Service Expedition, conducted experiments involving the temperature, wind, and the time it took to freeze water in a test tube, as well as how quickly skin would freeze in the Antarctic climate. 

Here's the entry in Passel’s diary for May 8, 1940: “…Excellent day for our experiment, blizzard conditions with approximately a thirty mile wind. I went out on the science roof to take the first wind reading, and when I faced the wind I couldn’t breathe…but after two minutes I did not notice any frost pain, except my face stung a little from the drift…we used a cube container today, larger than our cylinder, holding eight hundred grams of water…. Reached zero degrees C in about thirteen minutes. On taking another wind reading…in thirty seconds my nose started to pain, in forty-five my neck pinged, and after about one and twenty-one hundreds minutes I noticed a dull ache across my forehead above the eyes… Oh yes, after fifteen seconds my wrist (exposed, holding the anemometer above my head) burned like mad….”

Over time, the formula for computing wind-chill has been modified from the original charts and calculations by Passel and Siple, but the initial credit for the wind-chill factor goes to these polar pioneers. 

If this little taste of life in Antarctica during the US Antarctic Service Expedition of 1939-41 piques your interest, you can read Passel’s diary in full or see the Charles Passel image collection.

Check out this handy calculator for wind chill from NOAA.

Written by Laura Kissel, Polar Curator, and Lynn Lay, Goldthwait Polar Librarian 

Two men on building roof in wind Person standing in snow with mountain in background Person on snow with skis