Windy, windier

In their own words

On the 29th [July 1913], in the early morning, the wind temporarily abated to about 30 miles per hour. The sky remained overcast and snow continues to fall … By 10.30 a.m., the strong blizzard wind had returned and by midnight had reached a velocity of 94 miles per hour. Throughout six consecutive hours on the afternoon of the 30th the wind averaged 97 miles per hour.

— Douglas Mawson (1942), AAE Scientific Reports [Geographical Narrative and Cartography]

Two men start from the Hut with iron crampons and a full complement of clothes and mitts. Outside they find themselves in a rushing torrent of air, pulsating with mighty gust-waves. Lowered from the estate of upright manhood, they humbly crawl, or make a series of crouching sprints between the gusts. Over the scattered boulders to the east of the Hut, across a patch of polished snow they push to the first low ridge, and there they stop for breath. Up on the side of ‘Annie Hill,’ in the local phrase, the tide sweeps by with fiendish strength, and among the jagged rocks the man clutching the puffometer-box has a few desperate falls. At last both clamber slowly to an eminence where a long steel pipe has been erected. To the top of this the puffometer is hauled by means of a pulley and line. At the same time the aluminium sphere is released, and out it floats in the wind tugging at the spring.

The puffometer was left out for an hour at a time, and separate gusts up to one hundred and fifty and one hundred and eighty miles per hour were commonly indicated.

— Douglas Mawson, Home of the Blizzard

Cecil Madigan’s field was mining and geology, but with Mawson the geologist in charge at Cape Denison, and Frank Stillwell designated the field geologist, Madigan was assigned the role of ‘chief meteorologist’, with Alfred Hodgeman as his assistant. The duties required Madigan, Hodgeman or an appointed stand-in to take regular observations of barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, snow accumulation, wind speed and cloud formation and movement.

Barometric readings were no problem — they were done inside the main hut using a mercury barometer and barograph. Temperature and humidity were recorded in a Stephenson box — an external structure with louvred screens to permit the free flow of air over the instruments. It was only 10 metres from the hut, but this was far enough away for Percy Correll to become lost for some hours while returning from a routine observation during a night-time blizzard.

Observations of wind were much more demanding, with instruments constantly needing repairs. Inside another Stephenson box at the top of an exposed ridge 150 metres east of the living quarters was the anemograph, which recorded the wind’s mean velocity over a period of an hour. About 20 metres away was the wind-speed meter, or anemometer (hence the ridge’s name, Anemometer Hill). The high-maintenance instrument took on a female identity among the men, who named it ‘Annie’. Other instruments on the ridge recorded sunshine and accumulation of snow.

In June 1912 the men installed a ‘puffometer’ to measure wind gusts. The device was built by Correll to a design Mawson had brought from Shackleton’s 1907–09 British Antarctic Expedition. It used a metal spring to measure windspeed and a clockwork mechanism to record it. The puffometer was deployed specifically for big gusts, about an hour at a time, which meant two men had to brave the wind near its worst. It commonly recorded gusts above 250 km/h.

On one occasion late in March 1912, Madigan returned to the Hut in whiteout conditions without his assistant, Hodgeman. A search party, roped together, combed the whole area — often forced to crawl along the ground establishing position by feeling objects — but failed to find him. He turned up at the Hut after more than two hours lost in the snow.

Being lost in a blizzard or blown off one’s feet were some of the risks attached to meteorological duties. Another, especially during winter months, was frostbite. Aside from the usual attacks on fingers and toes, Madigan and others on his team frequently suffered facial frostbite from short trips to Anemometer Hill, even when protected by face masks.