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“Whumph”: the sound of settling Antarctic snow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2017

Polar adventurer Ben Saunders is currently about three weeks into a planned 1000-mile solo journey across Antarctica, blogging about it all the while. In his latest post, he describes the noise that snow makes when it settles under certain conditions, which he calls “whumphing”.

The only redeeming factor of all this fresh snow is what I’ll refer to as ‘whumphing’. I’ve no idea if there’s an actual term for the phenomenon, but I had the best whumph of my life when I first stepped out of the tent today. I assume it’s something to do with the weight of the snow settling, but the sensation is of the area of snow you’re standing on suddenly dropping by an inch or two, accompanied by a sound like a muffled thunderclap. If you’re lucky — as I was this morning — this sets off a chain reaction whumph, with a shockwave rolling out towards the horizon in every direction. It’s petrifying the first time you experience a whumph (in Greenland for me) but once you realise they’re harmless, it’s extraordinarily satisfying, like being a snowfield chiropractor, clicking tons of snow back into the right place.

Curious to see if whumphing was documented elsewhere, I did a little poking around. In a 1920 mountaineering book called Mountain Craft, Geoffrey Young talks about sudden settling due to sub-surface snow that’s less dense than the snow above. On a slope that can lead to an avalanche but on a flat Antarctic surface, you just get the muffled thunderclap.

I was also delighted to find that the legendary Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911, noted the very same effect in his book detailing the journey: The South Pole. In a false start to the expedition in September 1911, facing poor visibility and a temperature of -69 °F, he and his men decide to stop and build igloos for warmth. After settling in, they heard a noise.

That night we heard a strange noise round us. I looked under my bag to see whether we had far to drop, but there was no sign of a disturbance anywhere. In the other hut they had heard nothing. We afterwards discovered that the sound was only due to snow “settling.” By this expression I mean the movement that takes place when a large extent of the snow surface breaks and sinks (settles down). This movement gives one the idea that the ground is sinking under one, and it is not a pleasant feeling. It is followed by a dull roar, which often makes the dogs jump into the air — and their drivers too for that matter. Once we heard this booming on the plateau so loud that it seemed like the thunder of cannon. We soon grew accustomed to it.

Amundsen seemed rather less charmed than Saunders with whumphing, but it’s wonderful to witness the experience of it shared between these two explorers across more than 100 years.