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Whiteout – the horror of too much light in Antarctica

Maverick Life


A place of extremes: Whiteout, the horror of too much light

Whiteout. Image: Don Pinnock

In the great emptiness of Antarctica, the weather seems to have been specially designed to play tricks with your mind. One condition, however, beats them all. Don Pinnock remembers the blinding light of a blizzard.

The Cat train pulled in from the ice shelf sometime after supper at Sanae IV, South Africa’s base in Antarctica. Soon afterwards, the drivers trickled into the dining room foraging for a bite to eat. “How was the trip?” I asked Barry Nicholls, one of my companions on the 2005 expedition I’d hooked up with. He replied in one word: “Whiteout!”

Anyone who’s been in Antarctica a while needs no more information than that to know he’d had a terrible day. Without a GPS he’d probably still be lost somewhere out on the ice desert. Even with one he was lucky to be there.

Light in Antarctica doesn’t act in the nice, disciplined way it does on the other six continents. Temperature inversions, the glittering dust of ice crystals and the snow’s incredible albedo (reflectiveness) cause all manner of strange and often disturbing optical phenomena.

Each evening, at E-Base, (which was about to be dismantled), great tabular icebergs – many kilometres away and out of sight at other times – rose majestically above the shelf and hovered in the air like quizzical eyebrows above the expressionless expanse of ice. Whalers of old used to refer to these mirages as “the looming”.

parhelia – false suns hovering beside the real one and known as sun dogs
Parhelia – false suns hovering beside the real one and known as sun dogs. Image: Don Pinnock

Low evening sun also causes parhelia – false suns hovering beside the real one and known as sun dogs. On my first evening at Sanae I stood, transfixed – despite the cold – as the sun became circumscribed by a halo that thickened into sub-suns glittering with rainbow colours. These can also develop into spectacular sun pillars or multiply into more sub-suns.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Captain Scott’s party in 1911, described a splendid parhelia with “four mock suns in rainbow colours, and outside this another halo in complete rainbow colours. Above the sun were the arcs of two other circles touching these halos. Below was a dome-shaped glare of white which contained an exaggerated mock sun, which was as dazzling as the sun itself.”

The reason for these effects, according to ice expert Stephen Pyne, is that in Antarctica the supercooled atmosphere stratifies into layers of air, each with a different density, causing light to pass through each layer at a different angle. When the sun is low, its rays bounce off these layers, turning the sky into a natural Hall of Mirrors.

The real horror of Antarctic weather, however, is the whiteout.

Home of the blizzard

The blizzard began with a stiff breeze, which built up over a few hours into a blow that was causing the masts on the base to whistle. But it didn’t stop where normal winds on other continents usually stop.

Soon the whistle became a booming, like an endless bass drum threaded through with the shriek of pylons and aerials. I finished a cup of tea and, when I put the saucer on the table, the cup jiggered as though it was alive. In the dining room glasses were tinkling and had to be saved from committing suicide off the shelf.

Antarctica is in a constant state of crumbling and solidifying
Antarctica is in a constant state of crumbling and solidifying. Image: Don Pinnock
Antarctica's towering edge.
Antarctica’s towering edge. Image: Don Pinnock

In the meteorological office, the weather monitor told the story. A low-pressure system off the coast, together with katabatic (gravity-driven) winds off the high interior of the continent, were combining to put on a show experienced in few other places on Earth.

It blew all day and it blew all night, though – being summer – night was day with endless light. When I looked out my window the next morning it was as though a light had been placed behind frosted glass: I was seeing outside but there was nothing to see. It was a total whiteout.

To go out in such weather ran counter to my survival instincts, but there was the problem of the “smelly”. All bases, whether hi-tech or simple, need water and the way to get it is to melt snow. The process is simple: heave snow into a container, warm it until it melts then pump the water to the base. Because you want clean snow, the smelter is generally some way from the base; in Sanae’s case it was about half a kilometre away.

That morning I was on “smelly” duty and, blizzard or not, the base needed water. Several of us kitted up and opened the base door on the lee side of the building. The sound that hit us was somewhere between a scream, a howl and a growl. Great gobs of snow were being driven at incredible speeds. As we descended the stairs and turned towards the storm, the wind pummelled my chest so hard it was difficult to breathe.

Any water in Antarctica soon turns to ice
Any water in Antarctica soon turns to ice. Image: Don Pinnock
The ground of Antarctica is endless ice.
The ground of Antarctica is endless ice. Image: Don Pinnock

We made our way unsteadily along the base then turned downhill towards the smelter. The person not more than an arm’s-length ahead would disappear, then suddenly reappear as a grey shape.

The light was so diffuse, scattered and reflected that all shadows vanished. I couldn’t even see my feet, so each step was stressful: what if I stepped on slippery blue ice or against a rock? As I stumbled along, all round me there was a weird white darkness: bright but I couldn’t see a thing.

While the Sanae base was being built in the 1990s, the construction crew and over-wintering team lived in converted containers set side-by-side with a cable fence for guidance. A young medical orderly named Pierre Venter heard the dinner bell during a blizzard and left his hut. A particularly strong gust blew him slightly off course and he missed the guide cable and walked past the huts into the snowfield. They found him, dead from hypothermia, several days later when the storm abated.

South Africa's Sanae base
South Africa’s Sanae base. Image: Don Pinnock
The ice fields of Queen Maud Land go on forever
The ice fields of Queen Maud Land go on forever. Image: Don Pinnock

A year later, one of the Public Works team, Eric Williams, wandered off course in a blizzard and lost his bearings. “I had been one of those who found Pierre the year before,” he said, “and he was lying with his arms out, face down. I thought at the time he should’ve held his arms to his chest and tucked his legs in so he wouldn’t lose heat. I started running on the spot to get warm, then I scraped together a ridge of snow and lay behind it so the wind went over me.

“After a while a cowl of ice formed over my face, but that kept me warm. I lay there and made a promise to God. I said, ‘Lord, if you get me out of this I will do whatever you ask of me’. You need to be careful what you promise God. They found me after a long time and I was alive. Now I’m a lay preacher and I care for everyone in my community who needs me. People knock on my door at all hours of the night and I have to answer. A promise is a promise.”

As I plodded, sightless, towards the distant smelter I was thinking: “This is a place where you can die on the way to dinner.”

What is particularly disturbing about the whiteout – apart from not seeing – is that it tends to confound rational thought. I found space, time and definition dissolving.

How long had I been walking? Had I missed the smelly? Was the base upwind or downwind? Where were the other people?

Sight is designed to distinguish contrast. Without it, you’re left with just the creatures of your imagination. Pyne calls it “an unpleasant mysticism that illuminates everything and enlightens nothing”. Just as panic began to get the better of me I bumped into someone who’d stopped by the smelter trapdoor. I felt like hugging him.

We dug snow on our knees, grey forms in a fog of light. It seemed to take forever. The temperature was a manageable -10°C but the buffeting was exhausting. Eventually, we stumbled up to the base with the wind at our backs, propelling us over obstructions faster than we’d like. Back inside I looked around. The others were unrecognisable, their goggles and gear frozen and with snow packed into every chink. Those with beards had faces ringed with ice. I’d left a pocket open and it was full of snow.

Pack ice in Antarctica
Pack ice in Antarctica. Image: Don Pinnock
Pack ice and iceberg in Antarctica
Pack ice and an iceberg in the distance. Image: Don Pinnock
Pack ice off the Antarctic shelf
Pack ice off the Antarctic shelf. Image: Don Pinnock

There is a photograph titled “Pushing Against the Gale” by Frank Hurley, a member of Douglas Mawson’s Aurora expedition to Cape Denison in 1911, an area Mawson called the Home of the Blizzard. It’s of two men, one crawling, the other bent almost double, pushing into an obviously incredible Antarctic gale, with snow flying at them horizontally. I had always thought the photo was posed. I now know otherwise.

Driving in such conditions is beyond the imagination of anyone who has not experienced it. “Out there,” said Barry as he finished his supper and reached for a consoling beer, “it’s bad, really bad. You drive without seeing a thing: you could go over a cliff and never know until you dropped.” 

A place of extremes 

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and, on average, the highest continent on Earth.

In 1983, the Russian Vostok base measured minus 89°C, the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth.

Gales in George V Land have been regularly recorded at 320km/h.

Because all water freezes, precipitation is less than 5cm a year – drier than the Sahara.

Ice is constantly being deposited, raising the level of the continent’s elevation to a present average of 2,500m. The thickest ice found is in Wilkes Land, where it reaches a depth of 4,776m.

The ice mantle is so heavy that it depresses the underlying bedrock by about 2,500m.

Ninety percent of the world’s ice is found in Antarctica – about 30 million cubic kilometres. If it melted it would raise the world’s sea level by about 60m. DM/ML

In case you missed it, also read Antarctica’s water wonder

Antarctica’s water wonder

For more on Antarctica: Ice Wide Shut

Ice Wide Shut — Inside the complex, secretive world of the Antarctic Treaty


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