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Moon creates halo over a building.
Photo Credit: Marie Mclane
The moon creates a halo effect over the South Pole Station, where temperatures have been going to extremes. Twice this winter the station has recorded wild swings between record lows and highs.

Wild swings

South Pole temperatures roll between extremes, set new records

Winter at the South Pole always has its ups and downs — but the weather at the bottom of the world has been taking some wild swings this year.

During the first week of June, the station set several daily records for both high and low temperatures, as well as one monthly record.

“On the weather front, we did go for a roller coaster, as far as the temperatures go last week, and we did have an over 40C/72F temperature swing,” said Phillip Marzette, senior meteorologist at the South Pole Station External U.S. government site, via e-mail.

On June 2, the winter-time temperature hit minus 22.2 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30.1 degrees Celsius), shattering the previous record for that day of minus 35.7F (minus 37.6C) set in 1987. June 2 also set the all-time maximum temperature record for the month of June, breaking the previous record high of minus 23.6F (minus 30.9C) that occurred on both June 14, 1963 and June 1, 1993.

The winds that day were also record-breaking, hitting 37 miles per hour (32 knots), passing the previous record of 36 mph (31 knots), set in 1989.

Weather data at the South Pole.
Photo Courtesy: Marie McLane
The first minus 100F day of the 2013 winter at South Pole.

The wintertime heat wave continued into June 3 when the maximum temperature topped out at minus 25.8F (minus 32.1C), more than enough to break the record in 1987 of minus 30.6F (minus 34.8C).

Then it cooled off in a hurry — and in a big way. By June 6, the temperature had dropped to minus 104.3F (minus 75.7C), well below the previous minimum temperature record of minus 100.3F (minus 73.5C) set in 2004.

The next day, June 7, it got even colder. The temperature of minus 107.9F (minus 77.7C) broke the previous minimum temperature record of minus 99.2F (minus 72.9C), also set in 2004. The temperatures kept to the cellars for a third day, with a record low of minus 107.3F (minus 77.4C), which knocked out another 2004 record of minus 100.5F (minus 73.6).

A similarly wild shift in temperature occurred in late March into early April, when the difference was more than 80 degrees in just four days' time.

On March 29, the temperature was a relatively balmy minus 17.3F (minus 27.4C), knocking out the previous record of minus 21.8F (minus 29.9C) set in 2002. The following day, March 30, the record warmth continued, with the high reaching minus 18.2F (minus 27.9C), breaking the record of minus 25.4F (minus 31.9C), also set in 2002.

Graphs shows temperature trend.
Graphic courtesy: Phillip Marzette
Graph shows temperature trends.
Graphic courtesy: Phillip Marzette
The extreme temperature swings in June, above, and March-April are shown graphically.

An extreme cool down then followed. By April 1, the temperature dropped to minus 98.9F (minus 72.7C), yet another daily record. The previous record low for that day occurred back in 1982 when the mercury dipped to minus 92.9F (minus 69.4C).

The records continued to fall into April 2 when it remained in the minus 90s, reaching as low as minus 96.9F (minus 71.6C), breaking the previous minimum temperature, also set in 1982, of minus 93.8F (minus 69.9C).

The general weather pattern for 2013 so far has been moderate winds from the eastern plateau and clear skies, according to Marzette.

“This has kept our temperatures below normal for the most part. However, for each time (end of March and beginning of June), there have been storms that moved moisture, clouds and winds from the Weddell, Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas over to South Pole that have warmed up the temperatures significantly,” he explained.

“For March, it was a stream of moisture from the grid southwest that gave us the high for the month,” Marzette added, noting that a similar pattern occurred when the South Pole hit a new all-time record high of 9.9F (minus 12.3C) on Dec. 25, 2011. [See previous article — Heat wave: South Pole hits record high temperature on Christmas Day.]

The first couple of days of June’s weather were dominated by a “huge low pressure system that spun a moisture plume from the Weddell Sea to the northwest,” he said.

So far, with midwinter quickly approaching on June 21, the station has recorded five days at minus 100F or below.

The first came on May 5 when another record was set. The temperature bottomed out at minus 104.3F (minus 75.7C), which broke the previous minimum temperature record of minus 99.8F (minus 73.2C) that occurred in 1999. Later in the month, on May 21, the low reached minus 102.6F (minus 74.8C), barely beating out the old 1989 record of minus 102.5F (minus 74.7C).

The average annual temperature at the South Pole is about minus 56.9F (minus 49.4C). The coldest day at the South Pole was minus 117F (minus 82.8C) on June 23, 1982. The warmest occurred on Christmas Day in 2011, when the official high was 9.9F above zero (minus 12.3C).

The warmest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica occurred on Jan. 5, 1974, hitting a balmy 59F (15C), at Vanda Station, a small research base that once operated on the shores of Lake Vanda in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

The Russian Vostok Station still holds the record for coldest temperature – not just in Antarctica but the world. On July 21, 1983, the mercury bottomed out at minus 128.6F (minus 89.2 °C).

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs