Winds have reached 50 mph in PyeongChang, South Korea, postponing Olympic events. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Punishing winds have made life miserable for athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics.

As winds howled to 50 mph in PyeongChang, South Korea, on Wednesday, NPR reported emergency alerts buzzed on mobile phones, debris flung through the air, fences toppled, an outdoor tent was blown down and ski races were postponed.

“I’m not saying the weather is inconvenient at these Olympics,” quipped Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga. “I’m saying it blows.”

Svrluga said the gale “set off car alarms, impaled sand into skin, toppled concession stands and forced officials to shut down an entire cluster of venues.” He added athletes had voice concerns about the wind’s effect on their performance and safety.

So why is it so darned windy at this year’s venue? Meteorology and geography have converged to make PyeongChang a gallingly gusty destination.

PyeongChang is located in the Taebaek Mountains, notorious for cold, harsh winds that roar southeast from continental Asia. The wind originates from a feature known as the Siberian High. The air circulates clockwise around this high pressure zone, and the Taebaek mountains intercept the flow blasting in from the northwest. And the air flows faster at its high elevations.


(WeatherBell.com, adapted by CWG)

This cold and dry air flow is “the most dominant” of five prevailing weather patterns in the region at this time of year according to the PyeongChang organizing committee’s meteorology report. “When the air mass gains strength, high winds and low wind chill temperatures are the most influential factors in particular during the Olympic period,” the report says.

Over the past several days, the Siberian High has unleashed relentless winds ramming this mountain range.


European model simulation of wind gusts over the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday, exceeding 50 and even 60 mph. (WeatherBell.com)

Because the ski areas and snow venues are located in the highest terrain and/or on the wind-facing side of these mountains, they receive the most extreme conditions.

In the unfortunate spots sitting in narrow gaps in the mountain range, such as canyons, the wind is intensified because of channeling effects.

Weather models show the Siberian High weakening and shifting south over the next several days, which will allow the winds to relax. However, another one is predicted to form early next week, when windy conditions are likely to become an issue yet again.


European model simulation of wind gusts over the Korean Peninsula next Tuesday. Peak gusts reach 40 to 50 mph. (WeatherBell.com)

Additional reading from Marshall Shepherd, a professor of meteorology at the University of Georgia, at Forbes.com: “The Science Of Winds Affecting The 2018 Winter Olympics In PyeongChang, South Korea”