There are several places that could lay claim to the title of Earth’s windiest spot. It depends on exactly which measure of windiness you look at.
These are the contenders.
Situated off the north-west coast of Australia, this little island has seen some strong breezes.
On 10 April 1996, an unmanned weather station there recorded a gust of wind that reached 253 miles per hour (408km/h). According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it is the strongest gust of wind ever recorded.
Cyclone Olivia may have created the strongest single gust of wind, but that does not make it the strongest cyclone known
The driving force behind this extreme record was a tropical cyclone named Olivia.
Tropical cyclones are rotating storms that form when warm, moist air rises from the surface of the sea to create a region of low pressure. This depression boosts the trade winds that blow towards the equator. The column of rising air spins due to the Coriolis effect, whereby the rotation of the Earth deflects winds away from the equator.
These systems can produce gale-force winds. Particularly intense ones are called “cyclones” if they form over the south Pacific Ocean, “typhoons” if they form over the north , or “hurricanes” if they form over the Atlantic.
Cyclone Olivia may have created the strongest single gust of wind, but that does not make it the strongest cyclone known. A better measure is sustained wind speed.
One of the windiest places on Earth is smack in the middle of the USA
According to the WMO, the champion on this measure may be 1961’s Typhoon Nancy, which formed over the Pacific Ocean and was responsible for over 170 deaths when it hit Japan.
Nancy reportedly produced sustained surface wind speeds of 215mph (346km/h) – although meteorologists now suspect that was an overestimate.
Regardless, even stronger gusts of wind can occur in tornadoes. That means one of the windiest places on Earth is smack in the middle of the USA.
A tornado is a rotating column of air that extends from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground. When this column contacts water, it is known as a waterspout.
While these storms can brew some seriously strong winds, they don’t last long
Tornadoes are “the most violent of all atmospheric storms,” according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, US. While they can happen all over the world, the US gets far more than anywhere else, particularly in the south-eastern states known as “Tornado Alley”. On 27 April 2011, 207 tornadoes formed within 24 hours.
Oklahoma is the home of the WMO record for highest tornadic wind speed: 302 mph was recorded near Bridge Creek on 3 May 1999.
While these storms can brew some seriously strong winds, they don’t last long. But there is a place that is extremely windy all year round.
There are huge belts of wind caused by the uneven way the Sun heats the Earth’s surface. 30° north and south of the equator, the trade winds blow steadily. At 40° lie the prevailing westerlies, and the polar easterlies begin at around 60°.
The westerly winds in the Southern Ocean are effectively uninterrupted by continents
Ask any round-the-world sailor and they will quickly tell you the stormiest seas, stirred by the strongest winds, are found in the Southern Ocean.
These infamously rough latitudes are labelled the “roaring 40s”, “furious 50s” and “screaming 60s”. Unlike in the northern hemisphere, the westerly winds in the Southern Ocean are effectively uninterrupted by continents. This means they can get up to over 100mph.
That is pretty windy, but a little to the south there lies a continent that was first recognised as the windiest place on Earth a century ago.
Antarctica is home to unusual winds: katabatic, or downslope, winds. They are created by a combination of its cold climate and the shape of the continent.
“Persistent cooling of the surface – particularly during the Antarctic winter, when the sun is always below or only just above the horizon – leads to the formation of a shallow layer of cold, dense air above the surface,” says John King of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK.
“As Antarctica is basically dome-shaped, this tends to flow out from the high interior towards the coast,” says King. “The rotation of the Earth means that it does not flow directly downhill but is deflected to the left as it flows.”
From February 1912 to December 1913, scientists measured the wind speed at Cape Denison, a rocky point at the head of Commonwealth Bay in east Antarctica. To this day it is recognised as the windiest sea level station on Earth.
The windiest hour was recorded on 6 July 1913 at 95mph (153km/h). On the widely-used Beaufort scale of wind speeds, Cape Denison’s annual average wind speed is gale force.
According to Sir Douglas Mawson, who led the expedition to Cape Denison, “the climate proved little more than one continuous blizzard the year round; a hurricane of wind roaring for weeks together, pausing for breath only at odd hours.”
All in all, Antarctica is a challenging place to measure wind
The combination of ultra-strong winds and sub-zero temperatures means it is actually rather hard to measure the strength of katabatic winds.
For one thing, when the winds are really up they can destroy the measuring instruments and the masts they are attached to. But even when the gusts are gentler, propeller- or cup-style anemometers can ice up in the cold.
“It is possible to use ultrasonic anemometers, which don’t have any moving parts and can be heated to avoid icing problems,” says King. “But these don’t work well at high wind speeds when there is a lot of blowing snow in the air.”