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The Tropics and the Furious Fifties

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There’s an old sailor’s expression: “Below 40 degrees south there is no law, below 50 degrees south there is no God.” Since the sixteenth century, sailors have spoken in awe of the violent westerly winds and seas they experienced fighting their way across the Southern Ocean. With few landmasses to slow them down, the winds found across 40 degrees latitude often reach speeds of twenty-five knots—about 40 percent stronger than their northern hemisphere counterparts—earning them the title the “roaring forties.” As shipping pushed farther south, explorers realized that these winds form part of a vast storm belt that includes the “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties,” names more reminiscent of terrible rock bands than a major part of our planet’s circulation system. The early hunters and traders didn’t understand it at the time, but these winds are created by a procession of low-pressure systems carried east by the jet stream, a river of cold air hurtling and twisting round the Antarct…