Window on Nature
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
Call it a chinook, a sirocco, a Santa Ana, a dust devil, a whirlwind, or even a Cockeyed Bob. All are part of the same meteorological family — wind. At any given moment, these forces of nature are whipping in some part of the world. Winds are real, not something dreamed up for a work of fiction. Well, okay, we can’t vouch for the one immortalized by the old song “They Call the Wind Mariah.”
The wind blows most of the time at most of the places on earth. On the rampage side, it might be called a hurricane or a tornado “” big blasts of wind that wreak havoc wherever they touch solid ground. Even in gentler times, wind does exist — a soft breeze rustles the leaves of autumn or brings the first promise of spring.
Tradition tells us that absolute stillness, when there’s no trace of wind or whisper of a breeze, brings ill fortune. As a young girl growing up in Nebraska, Kaye heard the old-timers refer to this unnatural stillness as “tornado weather.” That’s when parents shooed their offspring to the cellar in spite of their protests. The only time she actually saw a tornado she was much too excited to worry about the presence or the lack of wind.
In the West, Californians call the stillness “earthquake weather.” We felt a good many earthquakes when we lived in our motorhome right on top of the San Andreas Fault (by accident, not by design). There, we found no correlation between wind and earthquakes.
On a smaller scale are California’s Santa Ana winds, which also are commonly known as the Devil Wind or Witch’s Wind. Several times a year, usually in late summer or early fall, a cool low pressure system rests just off the southern California coast. At the same time, a large high pressure system develops in the Mojave Desert. After a week to 10 days, the interior system accumulates an enormous mass of hot, dry air.
Blowing as much as 80 miles an hour, this wind bursts out of the desert and heads west, rising high enough to clear small mountain ranges but staying low enough to funnel down canyons. The high pressure system moves at a leisurely pace, increasing the temperature over a broad swath of the heavily populated southern California basin and foothills between the desert and the coast. Unfortunately, the hot wind doesn’t ease until it reaches the cooler air of the ocean.
The effects of such hot, dry winds on the human psyche have been extensively investigated, and some scientists have affirmed what tradition has claimed. A substantial percentage of the population reacts negatively to the hot, dry Santa Ana winds and others. Of course, the degree of this sensitivity varies from person to person.
After a few days of heat and high winds, pressure-sensitive people may grow frustrated, angry, or depressed. Documented statistics also show increases of accidents, beatings, and barroom brawls — as well as murders and suicides.
Unfortunately, the Santa Ana wind season coincides with the opening of schools in the fall. The teachers try, not always successfully, to hide their own foul moods (why does summer pass so rapidly?), frustration (what do you mean I’m going to have 35 freshmen crammed into my foods class?), and the resulting anxiety. When the wind softens and the temperature drops, teachers find that their kids are delightful as usual. To ease your mind, we (both of us public school teachers at one time) witnessed no violent behavior from our students or fellow teachers.
The Santa Ana also have been known to cause huge wildfires. Whenever extreme winds combine with high heat and low humidity, the conditions are conducive for forest and grass fires in California. Some fires burn for several weeks and cover thousands of acres. Residents in these areas keep an eye on the sky and an ear tuned to sounds of sirens or of helicopters flying overhead. We haven’t had to evacuate yet, but a couple of fires have had us wondering.
On a much smaller scale, the wind also produces dust devils. It would be difficult to travel in a desert in the summer without seeing one. They are not big enough to levitate your motor coach or towed car, but if you have a small- to medium-sized dog, look out. The worst dust devil we experienced caused the temporary loss of an aluminum chair. Lowell’s quick reaction outsmarted the wind; he snatched it before the wind could steal it away permanently.
Finally, this fact: Weather forecasting dates back at least to the fourth century B.C. when Aristotle is known to have written a treatise on the subject. But with the development of all the meteorological technology that’s available today, why is the weather forecast so often wrong? It was supposed to be sunny and warm today “” instead, it’s wet and windy.