Let's Talk with Gerd Wendler About Studying Polar Climate

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Gerd Wendler is a professor of polar climatology at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Gerd also studies katabatic winds, the incredibly powerful winds that thunder down from Antarctica's high polar plateau to the coast.

AMNH: Why should kids know about Antarctica?

Gerd: Antarctica is one of two heat sinks on planet Earth and we have to study it to obtain a better understanding of global climate change.

AMNH: How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

Gerd: Stay interested, and if you have the chance, go there.


Field of Study Atmospheric sciences
Hometown Hamburg, Germany
Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Science
Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Languages
Thoughts on Middle/High School "My least favorite subject was languages, but they help me in my job now. I need to speak, read, and write English for where I work now, and people in Antarctica speak many different languages."
Interests in Middle School Chess
Interests Today Outdoor activities like boating and golf and traveling to not too crowded places.
Life Lessons from the Field "If you want to do something, DO IT, but be careful in your preparation."
Recommended Reading Endurance: An epic Polar adventure (Shackleton expedition) by F. Worseley
Major Influences "Alaska, this large and thinly populated State, influenced me strongly."
Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Eight

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Gerd: I study the climate in both the northern and southern high latitudes, or the regions around the North and South Pole. The polar regions are the two heat or energy sinks on Earth. That means they are regions that release more heat than the amount of heat they are taking in from the Sun. The equator, on the other hand, is a heat source; it gains more energy or heat from the sun than it releases. Put together, the equator and poles set up the whole global circulation of air on Earth. Heat flows from the source to the sink, or from the equator out to the poles. Compared to the equator, we don't know much about air circulation at the poles, and they are such an important part of the climate of our planet.

AMNH: What are you studying specifically?

Gerd: Often my research focuses on the winds at the poles, especially katabatic winds in Antarctica. Antarctica is well known for its ferocious winds. Because of the force of gravity, dense, cold air flows from the high polar plateau in the middle of the continent down toward the coast, just like a stream or creek. The landscape also contributes to the wind–landforms can actually channel the airflow and force the winds to converge; this makes the winds even stronger. These intense winds, once they reach the coast, are called katabatic winds. Wind speeds can increase from quiet conditions to 40 mph over a five minute period!

AMNH: Is Antarctica windy all over?

Gerd: The windiest regions of Antarctica are usually on the coast. By the time they reach the coast, flowing down from the high polar plateau, the winds have picked up speed. One of the windiest places is the Adelie coast, where the winds have not only picked up speed, but have been funneled through the mountains in the area to get even faster.

AMNH: How fast can winds go?

Gerd: At the French Antarctic station Dumont d'Urville, a wind speed of 224 mph was measured It is one of the highest winds ever measured close to sea level. Cape Denison on the Adelie coast reported wind speeds in excess of 100 mph about every winter month. Needless to say, no other continent in the world compares to Antarctica in wind speeds.

AMNH: How do you study wind?

Gerd: I analyze data about wind speed and direction, and I gather data using tools that are on the ground and on satellites. A lot of my data comes from Automatic Weather Stations in Antarctica; they offer their data over satellite. We started using Automatic Weather Stations in 1980, but back then our wind sensors often didn't make it through the extreme winds they were measuring! As a result, our records then were pretty spotty. In 1994-95, a really rugged anemometer (the instrument used to measure wind speed and direction) was developed. We installed them in our stations in Antarctica and obtained year-round data for the first time. Through that work, we confirmed that Cape Denison is the windiest place on Earth close to sea level. We measured winds there for four consecutive months, and got an average monthly wind speed in excess of 60 mph.

AMNH: What do you like about working in Antarctica?

Gerd: For one thing, Antarctica is beautiful and incredible to see. At South Pole station during the summer half year there is very little change in the elevation of the Sun (at least not any change you could see with the naked eye) over the course of twenty-four hours. That means that it stays at the same height above the horizon all the time. Instead of rising, moving overhead, and then setting, the Sun just moves around in a circle over the pole. Without a watch, you really have no sense of daily rhythm and no concept of what time of day it is. Antarctica itself is also still very much a mystery–we know a lot less about Antarctica than we do about all the other continents. There are still a lot of questions, in all areas of science, that need to be answered about Antarctica, and that's an exciting opportunity. In climatology, we know perhaps the least about the way climate changes in Antarctica compared to any place in the world. That means there are a lot of exciting questions to study in my field. I also like all the international work. It is interesting to work with colleagues from all over the world. And I like planning an experiment, making measurements, analyzing data, comparing results with models, and finally publishing the results. I really enjoy pretty much the whole research process. Making actual measurements of wind or other climate data in the field can be great.

AMNH: Do you study Antarctica when you're not there?

Gerd: Making measurements in Antarctica is only one part of my research. The more time-consuming part is analyzing all the data we gather and then writing up my results so other scientists can see them. That all happens away from Antarctica. I also try to share my experiences with others by teaching and by taking on assistants. One way I can share my experiences is by bringing people along to work with me on my research. A science teacher will go down South as part of my program.