Winds of the world
Weatherwise (May/Jun 2000)

by Jan Null

The lexicon of wind has a proud history of colorful names, words that tap the deep connection humanity has with weather. Some places are named for winds, and some winds are named for places.

The cold air that flows down the Columbia River is sometimes called the gorge wind, after the deep-cut geological grandeur of northern Oregon. The gorge wind isn't just any valley wind, however. Sometimes it howls toward the Pacific Ocean at 80 mph, bringing memorable ice and snowstorms to the Portland area.

No wonder, then, that residents of the region felt compelled to give this important and regular atmospheric visitor a more distinctive name. They held a "Name Our East Wind" contest that drew 7,000 entries. The winner: the Coho.

Coho isn't only a colorful word explains Oregon State climatologist George Taylor, "It's an indigenous name to the Pacific Northwest; Coho salmon are wild, fast swimmers analogous to the wind." It doesn't hurt that a salmon cousin, Chinook, is indirectly immortalized as the warm dry wind that descends the front-range slopes of the Rocky Mountains, bringing a breath of spring in midwinter.

You don't have to use ordinary words when you're shooting the breeze about the weather. The lexicon of wind has a proud history of colorful names, words that tap the deep connection humanity has with weather. Whether a contest victor, like Coho, or an ancient inheritance, like typhoon (descended from the Chinese for "big wind", the great winds of the world have names with significant meaning, even cultural significance.

In an age of global commerce, for instance, it is no wonder that the persistent easterlies of the tropics are called the "trades." These winds brought European sailors across the oceans to find gold in the Americas, and they brought them home laden with riches from the Far East.

The business world has christened other winds, as well. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Dutch captains found it was faster to get to the Spice Islands (today's Indonesia) by first riding the gales between 40S and 50 deg S latitudes to Australia, then turning north. They dubbed these commercially convenient latitudes the Roaring Forties and the windier regions further south the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties. The Screaming Sixties are most pronounced where they are funneled through Drake Passage between Cape Horn (the tip of South America) and the Antarctic Peninsula. This treacherous route from the Pacific to the Atlantic has some of the strongest and most persistent winds in the world.

In a world where time is money, traders of the I6th and 17th centuries invented their most colorful terms for the frustrating regions of calm. Between the trades and the westerlies that offered speedy return were the "horse latitudes" in which no steady wind blew, under the influence of semi-permanent high pressure. Sailors dumped overboard the horses that died in the scorching heat as food supplies dwindled. And between the trades of each hemisphere, nothing seemed to move at all, so sailors called them the "doldrums."

Pride of Place

If some places are named for their winds, so too the winds are frequently named far places. When a low enters the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, a hot youth wind may blow across he water into Spain. Here it is called the leveche, a name derived from art ancient term for Libya, source of the withering air. The wind rushing out of the New Zealand Alps across the Canterbury Plan is called the Canterbury northwester.

Many of the winds that blow down mountain slopes in California are also named for their locale. A hot, dry easterly wind in the Los Angeles basin is called a Santa Ana. When funneled through passes of the coastal mountains--most notably the Santa Ana. Canyon--the air can accelerate to speeds in excess of 60 m.p.h. Most frequent between October and February, after the dry California summer, strong Santa Areas often fan the flames of dangerous wildfires. They blow when high pressure builds over the Great Basin (the high plateau east of the Sierra Nevada).

The San Francisco Bay area has its own scorcher-the Diablo. These northeast winds tend to blow through the Diablo Range, which runs north-south on the east side of the bay. Diablo winds fueled the Oakland hills firestorm in October 1991. It is no accident, then, that these hot, dry winds are Spanish for "devil," which is just as well, since San Franciscans have long considered themselves edgier than their southern rivals.

Too Much Streamlining

Unfortunately, local color-the pride in a region's special wind-is frequently lost in science. Meteorologists know they can lump these hot downslope winds into one category, called "adiabatic" winds. The local Alpine version of the phenomenon is the foehn, a word taken from the Greek for "fire." At one time, the foehn of the Alps was the most-studied wind in the world, so meteorologists sometimes call every downslope wind that breathes fire a "foehn-type" wind.

Of course, streamlining winds into general categories is smart, scientifically. Meteorologists have shown that similar atmospheric mechanisms can explain downslope winds everywhere. In the warm adiabatic winds, the air descends and warms from compression (the term "adiabatic" implies such temperature changes). As the foehn blows from higher to lower elevations of Austria and Germany, it warms by adiabatic compression at a rate of 5F per thousand feet. Often such air has lost a great deal of moisture to precipitation on its earlier upslope journey, so relative humidities can drop into the single digits as the air descends and warms again.

Cold downslope winds are another category, called "katabatic," or fall winds. Katabatic winds are cold and dense sir pulled downhill by gravity. This is how science characterizes the Coho wind. The most frequent fall winds occur as cold, heavy air spills off the plateaus of Greenland and Antarctica toward the coasts. Cape Denison on the Antarctic coast has the greatest average wind speeds on Earth, primarily because these fall winds average 50 m.p.h.

Californians refer to their great katabatic wind as the Mono wind. It originates from the cold air over the Great Basin, particularly in Mono County, that spills out of high mountain valleys at over 9,000 feet and streams down the canyons on the west slopes of the rugged Sierra Nevada. Mono winds have knocked down 100-foot trees and have been clocked at 100 m.p.h. in Yosemite Valley.

In deference to the power of these winds, the people of the Rhone Valley in Europe refer to the cold katabatic intruder from the Alps as the mistral, which derives from a word meaning "master." During the mistral, orchards in the otherwise balmy Gulf of Lyon region of France must be protected from the chill as well as the wind.

Yet another colorful group of winds homogenized into a uniform category by science are the seasonal winds that usually fringe the tropics-the monsoon. Derived from the Arabic word "mausim," which simply means "season," these winds generate seasonal rainfall patterns, most notably in southern and eastern Asia. "Monsoon" is a fine term, but you'll also hear people refer to the summertime winds that feed moisture from Mexico into the Desert Southwest as the Arizona monsoon.

To the knowledgeable, the word "monsoon" explains how the heat-driven low pressure inland draws vaporous, oceanic fuel for stormy weather to an otherwise relatively dry land. Here's a case where terminology is scientifically instructive yet at odds with a colorful local culture.

This conflict between knowledge and culture needn't occur in our weather lingo-it is possible for wind names to satisfy both camps. For proof, we turn to the harmonious civilization of ancient Athens.

The Greatness That Was Greece

"Zephyros, the west wind, is the most gentle of all the winds and it blows in the afternoon and towards the land, and is cold," wrote Theophrastus, a 4th-century B.C. scholar who left us with a complete accounting of the winds of Greece. Today any soft, gentle breeze is a zephyr. But to the ancients, Zephyros was part of a larger pantheon that controlled the weather.

The Greeks not only put a name to the wind but a face as well. A Greek who uttered the name "Zephyros" spoke of a god, released by Acolus, king of the winds, at the command of the supreme gods on Mount Olympus. Each wind-god represented a different point on the compass, such as Notos, god of the south. Today's bora, which spills southwest from the plateau of western Russia and onto the Adriatic Coast, reaching 100 m.p.h., honors Boreas, the Greek god of northerly wind.

Wind gods were more than mere mythology. They evoked cutting-edge science in ancient Greece, because Acolus kept his winds in a cave on a rocky isle. In this way, mythology was in harmony with the speculations of Theophrastus's great teacher, Aristotle. This great natural philosopher, who wrote the first comprehensive meteorological cal theory, claimed that winds were exhalations of a dry, vaporous element released from holes and cracks in the Earth. Thus the ancient wind gods evoked the known causes of winds and informed the vocabulary that Greeks used every day to discuss weather. J

Today, the octagonal Tower of the Winds is a surviving monument to Theophrastus"s pantheon of airs. Each wall of the structure is topped by a frieze whose face depicts the corresponding wind from that direction. Yet this 2,000-year-old structure is no more relevant to our weather language today than it is relevant to out forecasting techniques. Weather is too much a part of modern life to remain linguistically in the hands of gods long ago dethroned. We need our own Tower of Winds, and fortunately, there are many names that honor both ancient inspiration and modern sensibility.

The Modern Pantheon

We now live in a utilitarian world; we value the wind for what it does, not who it is. Many of the great wind names of today honor this principle. Hence, we have the doctor of West Africa, an onshore wind that once brought relief to desperately hot and sick colonial officials. And one of west winds of Arab lands is named laawan, "the helper," because it assists farmers in winnowing grain for threshing.

When a wind brings unpleasantness, locals let you know; the bricklayer of New South Wales, Australia, is so named because it buries everything in dust carried from the interior of the continent. The barber of North America carries so much freezing rain that it will male any decent beard intolerably heavy. In the same vein are such descriptive winds as the melteme ("bad-tempered one") of Turkey and the simoom ("poisoner") of Egypt. Perhaps cruelest of all are the evil twins of Spain, the descuernacabras ("wind that de-horns goats") and its most violent form, the matacabras ("wind that kills goats").

Less macabre or judgmental, but no less descriptive, are the Sharav of Israel, which literally brings the "heat of the land" as the ancient Hebrew word implies, and the haizebeltza, or "black wind" of the Basque> which bears dark clouds off the north slopes of the western Pyrenees. The blue norther of Texas is a similarly ominous sign of changing weather. And the wished of Germany's Rhine Valley is obviously a much gentler wind.

You can see that wind names like blue norther or wisper actually serve as a kind of forecast. The venerable Chinook, from the Blackfoot Indian term meaning "snow eater," is such a wind. This foehn-type blow can melt a foot of snow on the plains east of the Rockies in a few hours. On January 22, 1943, a Chinook raised the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota, from -4 deg F at 7:30 a.m. to 47 deg F just two minutes later! (Within 27 minutes, the Chinook had abated and the mercury dropped back to 4 deg F.) A Chinook can exceed 100 m.p.h.

Other wind names forecast the timing of new conditions. The bad-i-sad-o-bist-roz of Iran means "wind of 120 days." The Egyptian khamsin means "Lasting 50 days." Along the west coast of Mexico, tropical storms are cordonazo, the "lash of St. Francis." This mostly refers to the strong southerly winds; in any case, they peak near the Feast of St. Francis in early October. A sundowner is a dry, warm California northerly along a 60-mile stretch of the coast near Santa Barbara. It often develops on schedule in the late afternoon or early evening, rapidly replacing cool, moist marine air with dry air that can reach 100̊ F. A sundowner can gust to over 90 mph as it's funneled through the coastal canyons of the Santa Ynez mountains. This combination has led to significant wildland fires.

One of the most useful forecasts is the word "cyclone." Coined by Henry Piddington, a British official in 19th century colonial India, the term derives from the Greek for circle, or more specifically, "coil of the snake." Piddington was trying to warn sailors that the storms in the Bay of Bengal were counterclockwise blows that would bring consistently changing winds. Hence, captains learned to deal with cyclones by sailing with the wind and then out of harm in the trailing quadrant.

"Tornado" is derived not only from the Spanish verb tornare ("to turn") but also from the Spanish tronada ("thunderstorm"). Certainly if you see the former you'll see the latter. Of course, when things get as helter-skelter as a twisting storm, Australian terms like cock-eyed-Bobs or Willy-Willys will certainly warn anyone as well as any other word. (According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, willy-willy, which once referred to tropical storms, is now meant only for dust-devils.) The Japanese term for fire vortices would also be a warning: No one would mess with tatsumaki ("dragon whirls").

Of course, the modern mind cannot rest with its weather lexicon. Science shows that no two storms or winds are exactly alike, despite the similarities. That's why it's hard to resist a name like "Maria." She probably first appeared in George Stewart's classic novel of 1941, in which the Junior Meteorologist names an incipient Pacific storm. In the 1950s. Maria (mar-rye-ah) also became the fictional wind of the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon and in a song by the Kingston Trio.

In the intervening years, the World Meteorological Organization got in the act. Like the Junior Meteorologist, they began to name all the big tropical storms. At this rate, someday we'll be able to fill a whole book with the names of the wind. A new tower will never get off the ground, because we'll never be able to decide who to immortalize in marble: Maria or Andrew or Hugo, or, to be fair to those folks in Oregon, a leaping fish.