The Antarctic Katabatic, the world’s most powerful wind, is an elemental force with complex moods and fierce influence. Creatures submit to its bidding, indeed can only survive on the coastal ring of Antarctica. Yet even here the wind holds sway: a seal pup, born hot and steaming onto frozen sea ice, will soon face the Katabatic’s icy blast; Adelie and emperor penguins must huddle, buffeted by winds that can reach 200 miles per hour.
Antarctica’s polar centre is the Katabatic’s birthplace. Here, just a playful breeze, it dances with the ice crystals that slowly build up, their combined weight slowly dragging the polar ice cap on a slow inexorable descent towards the sea.
The wind is also being drawn downhill towards the coast ?the light breeze picks up speed and gallops across the polar plateau. Along the way, a cave carved into the ice by scientists provides a record of climate change over thousands of years in bubbles of trapped air which reveal varied oxygen and carbon dioxide levels through the ice’s many layers.
Five hundred miles from the coast the Transantarctic Mountains block the slow-flowing ice and challenge the Katabatic on its course, but the wind triumphs, scoring the icescape into ornate ridges. Further on, mountain tips protruding from the snow are bastions for the first creatures able to stake their claim since the wind began its passage, for here snow petrels have flown 200 miles inland from the coast to nest in the mountain zone.
The Katabatic flows over the mountains and plunges into the adjoining valley. It warms up as it descends, bringing the ice flow to an abrupt halt. In these dry valleys, also warmed by the dark, heat-retaining rocks, other life forms begin to make an appearance: algae, unseen until now, has struck a toehold under the shelter of a frozen lake. But even here it is still perilous for most life forms,?as attested by the remains of penguins and seals ? some preserved by the cold for 3,000 years ? which strayed from the coast.
Fifty miles from the sea, the skies become an aerial battleground as sea breezes flow inland to meet the Katabatic head-on. Reaching the coast, the Katabatic unleashes its unbridled power, and forces life to come to a standstill. Seals retreat, diving under the ice for sanctuary, while humans take refuge in buildings they’ve erected in the frozen outpost.
The Katabatic has not only shaped climate and life, it has helped preserve records of the past. Research has shown that 350 million years ago this barren territory was once a lush forested land. But now scientists have also discovered that forces created by human-induced climate change are at work that may be shaping a new chapter in the Antarctic story. Will the Katabatic, for sixty million years the uncontested ruler of this land, continue to reign?