The wondrous winds of Patagonia and Antarctica

Patagonia is windy. Very windy, in places. So is Antarctica and the surrounding waters, at times. Both regions in the ‘extreme south’ bear the brunt of the westerly winds that travel around the globe, unheeded in these low latitudes by other land masses. So when you travel to these parts, as I did over the 2019/2020 summer season, you are well advised to take wind-proof clothing. Given that the winds are sometimes so strong that they can blow you over, these precautions only go so far! Visiting a part of the world where wind is so dominant has given me a better appreciation of this enigmatic and energetic element and the role that the wind plays in the history and climate of the globe.

The pink arrows illustrate the dominant westerly winds close to the north and south poles and the Trade Winds close to the equator. South of forty degrees the wind intensity picks up as a result of the vast expanse of uninterrupted ocean at those latitudes. These wind builds up relentlessly until they ‘run’ into southern South America (including Patagonia) and the Antarctic Peninsula – both shown in the lower centre of the image. Source: studyblue.com 

When you are being blown and buffeted by the winds at ground and sea level in Patagonia and Antarctica it is humbling and awe-inspiring to remember that you are part of a global weather system. It is a weather system that has been used by sailors for millenia for travel, trade and exploration, especially utilising the Trade Winds found near the equator  – the Northeast and Southeast trades in the map above. The coupled ocean-atmosphere system is not only a major driver of the global climate but also of recent global history as European ships sailed the seas searching for new resources to exploit. The Spanish claimed much of South America as their own and its influence is still felt strongly in places like Patagonia today.

Personal and cultural experiences and knowledge of a particular area, such as when you travel or where you live, often leads to a “sense of place”. The elements are an important part of the mix, so much so that I like to describe different areas as elemental places. For example, I see my home of Tasmania as a land dominated by fire and water. In contrast, Patagonia is a land of wind, as captured in the following quote:

“In few parts of the world as in Patagonia the climate of a region is so determined by a single meteorological element: the constancy and strength of the wind”.                  F. Prohaska (1976)

Visiting Patagonia and Antarctica reinforced the importance of the wind in these regions and how intimately this element is tied to the sense of place there.

My first experience of extreme winds ‘on-the-ground’ in Patagonia was at Fitz Roy National Park. The winds coming down this glacial valley were so strong that I had to crouch down when the gusts picked up. With a steep slope on either side of the path, I gained new respect for this energetic element. Once shelter had been found it was fascinating to watch the wind patterns on the surface of the glacial lake.

A sculptured Nothofagus at Torres del Paine National Park (TDPNP in Patagonia illustrates the power of the wind in the region and in shaping plant growth. The wind driven clouds flowing over the Cuernos del Paine in the background form a stunning back-drop. The mountains have been sculpted by glacial erosion, glaciers that are now rapidly retreating due to climate change. Another recent unprecedented change has been three major fires in TDPNP, fanned by the strong winds. 

The importance and influence of the wind in Patagonia was also apparent through warning signs along road-sides, at tourist sites and in tourist shops. These included:

  • Vientos Patagonicos‘ (Patagonian Winds);
  • Precaucion zona de fuertes vientos’ (Caution area of high winds)(see below); and
  • Windy Pass.

The last sign was only in english, on the trek to Torres del Paine where many foreign tourists visit. The pass was VERY windy. So windy that my Canadian friend Adele told me that it ‘made her pants fall down’. She was referring to her outer rain pants that were blown down her legs while she was waiting for wind gusts to pass. Now that’s windy!

The sign at Torres del Paine National Park, reminding visitors to be careful about the high winds, had been blown over!

By far my favourite reference to the wind in Patagonia was the ‘Monumento al Viento’ – the Monument to the Wind – on the foreshore of Puerto Natales in Chile. The joy of the male and female ‘flying’ in the wind was contagious. Seeing this celebration of the wind was a highlight of my travels. Along with my personal experience, it reinforced how strong and persistent winds (that are usually considered a nuisance) are one of natures wonders. 

Experiencing the wind in Patagonia first hand made me feel closer to this element than I have felt before. Having to push against a wall of wind as I walked through a narrow valley was both challenging and exciting. While wind is an invisible element its presence could be strongly felt. I often wonder whether the human mind could cope if we could see the wind directly, with all its complex movement and patterns.

The abundance of wind energy in Patagonia makes it is a perfect place for wind turbines. The largest wind farm in Argentina is located there, near the Atlantic Ocean. With 43 turbines and 80 MW of installed capacity, the facility supplies 300 GWh of clean, renewable electricity to the Argentinian grid annually, preventing 190,000 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. The melting and retreat of all the glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is a stark reminder of the need for a full and rapid transition to renewable energy.

From Patagonia my travels took me south to Antarctica, via Ushuaia in southern Argentina. Ushuaia is located in Tierra del Fuego, which translates as Land of Fire. The fires in question were lit by the Indigenous people in the area when they lived a traditional life. They are no longer burning. Maybe that is why most of the souvenirs in Ushuaia refer to the region as ‘Fin del Mondo’ (End of the World) instead? The wind still has a presence. It varies in strength and we were fortunate to have calm conditions while we were in town.

Our two day trip over the notoriously windy and rough Drake Passage was also relatively calm. This is the body of water between the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, circled in the image below. Sailing conditions range from the ‘Drake Lake’ to the ‘Drake Shake.’ My crossing was somewhere in between.

The App windy.com has revolutionised the way we ‘see’ the wind in all of its complexity. The blue circle encompasses the land and sea plied by our Antarctica-South Georgia cruise, including the Drake Passage. Similar images were used on the voyage to illustrate impending wind and sea conditions. Wind gusts shown in pink are at the higher end. This image is from February 22nd, 2020.  When we were travelling these seas in mid-January 2020 there was much more pink in our path, especially on the return leg from the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas to Ushuaia. 

Experiencing the wind and waves on the cruise ship was different to being IN the wind in Patagonia. Nine metre high seas encourage you to stay horizontal in bed. I could feel the rocking and rolling of the boat but not the wind directly. These weather conditions were awesome – no doubt about it. They were just one step removed. The experience in the southern waters did help me better appreciate what sailing ships would have encountered in these often rough seas. For them the wind was essential to sail. For us, travelling on a fossil-fuel powered boat, calm conditions were preferred. How the times and expectations have changed.

Wind is also essential for sea birds like the albatross. By moving from faster high air to slower low air, or vice versa, an albatross can propel itself forward. In a series of loops the albatross surfs the wind, up and down, repeating the pattern over and over as it moves across the ocean.

We were able to watch albatross surfing the wind for a long period sitting on a hillside on one of the Falkland Islands. Their gracious movement was mesmerising.

The wildlife we experienced in Antarctica and on the sub-Antarctic islands was stunning. In addition to the albatross, whales, seals, penguins of many kinds, skuas and other bird species were all there. My experience was tinged with sadness knowing of the rapid changes in populations of these species occurring in Antarctica related to climate change. The hottest air temperature on record were recorded in Antarctica in February 2020; warming of the waters around the continent is having major impacts in the distribution and number of animals. The history of whaling, sealing and fishing (including krill) in the region has contributed to declining numbers.

James McClintock, in this book ‘Lost Antarctica‘, notes that the central western Antarctica is the poster child for climate warming on the planet. Scientists attribute the rapid warming of the Antarctic Peninsula to a combination of the build-up of greenhouse gases and, especially during the summer months, changes in wind patterns (the westerly jet) due to the hole in the ozone. Changes in the wind patterns during the summer months; that was new knowledge to me, as was the connection with the ozone layer. The global weather system is changing and the behaviour of the wind plays a major part in the big picture.

As a final note, one of my most lasting and personal memories of the wind on the Antarctica expedition was my hair blowing in every direction as we passed from a calm bay into the open waters around South Georgia. It was a truly wondrous and elemental experience. 🙂

I was planning to post a video but it turned out to be upside down. There must be a way to fix that!

An Afterword: To learn more about the wondrous nature of wind I point you to other posts on related themes: two on my personal experiences with typhoons, an expression of wind that has great force (here and here); a story about kinetic sculptures that are powered by the wind; a wind-related phenomenon in Alburquerque that attracts balloonists from around the world; and last but not least ‘What is Air’, one of the first posts I wrote. Wind, after-all, is air in motion.

After posting this blog my friend Jodi Brunner reminded of the importance of wind and its associated energy (qi) to Feng Shui. Jodi is a Master of this ‘art of placement’ which translates as ‘wind water’. Jodi noted that “People tend to focus on the tangible water part of Feng Shui and not consider the intangible wind. Wind carries qi so when we walk we carry wind with us and when we enter a building that wind is brought inside. It’s the quality and quantity for the qi in the wind which determines success and otherwise for a household.” For those who would like to know more I have written two posts about Feng Shui – one about it as a global phenomenon and the other about Fusui, its counterpart in Japan.

Wind + energy (+ water) is a potent combination, from local to global scales.

2 thoughts on “The wondrous winds of Patagonia and Antarctica

  1. Fascinating stuff, Jann. You have definitely peaked my interest in this element! For many of us, the most familiar experience of the wind is watching and hearing it dance in the leaves and branches of surrounding trees. I very much enjoyed reading about your experience of being in the winds of Patagonia and Antarctica. Your images provide a real sense of just how much influence the wind has on these regions. The photo of your hair in flight reminds me of a video Peter took of my hair when we went up to the top of Kunanyi/Mt.Wellington on that visit with you, many years ago now! ☺️

    • Kunanyi/Wellington is another windy spot! There are many of them around the world. Patagonia stands out in the way the wind is so persistent and widespread. It certainly made an impression on me! There was much more that I could have written about wind, more generally. Like how it is represented and how we experience it from day to day. There was more than enough to say about the ‘extreme south’ though in this instance.I’m pleased that you found it fascinating. 🙂

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