How the Santa Ana and Diablo Winds Help Wildfires Spread

The Diablo and Santa Ana winds are notorious for exacerbating wildfires in northern and southern California, respectively.

These strong winds blow warm, dry air across the region at different times of the year, but mainly occur in the late autumn. They form when a large pressure difference builds up between the Great Basin – a large desert that covers most of Nevada  – and the California coast. This pressure gradient funnels air downhill and through mountain canyons and passes toward the Pacific. Squeezing through these narrow spaces, the wind is forced to speed up. According to the NWS, they can easily exceed 40 mph.

Originating in the high desert, the air starts off cool and dry. But as it travels downslope, the air compresses and warms. In fact, it warms about 5°F for every 1000 feet it descends. This dries out the region’s vegetation, leaving it susceptible to any type of spark. The fast-moving winds then fan the flames of any wildfires that ignite.

These infamous zephyrs are named for the places from which they tend to blow. The Santa Ana Winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County. The Diablo Winds take their moniker from Mount Diablo, which sits northeast of San Francisco.

Credit: Insider Inc

What is the North American Monsoon?

The summer phase of the North American Monsoon is underway. But what, you may wonder, are monsoons and how do they impact the United States?

While most people associate a monsoon with rain, that is only half the story. It is actually a wind system. More specifically, according to NOAA, a monsoon is “a thermally driven wind arising from differential heating between a landmass and the adjacent ocean that reverses its direction seasonally.” In fact, the word monsoon is derived from the Arabic word “mausim”, meaning seasons or wind shift.

In general, a monsoon is like a large-scale sea breeze.  During the summer months, the sun heats both the land and sea, but the surface temperature of the land rises more quickly. As a result, an area of low pressure develops over the land and an area of relatively higher pressure sits over the ocean. This causes moisture-laden sea air to flow inland. As it rises and cools, it releases precipitation. In winter, this situation reverses and a dry season takes hold.

Monsoon wind systems exist in many different parts of the world, with the most famous one setting up over India and Bangladesh. In the US, we have the North American Monsoon that impacts states across the southwest. Summer temperatures in the region, which is mostly desert, can be extremely hot. Readings in the triple digits are not uncommon. This intense heat generates a thermal low near the surface and draws in moist air from the nearby Gulf of California. In addition, an area of high pressure aloft, known as the subtropical ridge, typically moves northward over the southern Plains in summer. Spinning clockwise, this shifts the winds in the area from a southwesterly to a southeasterly direction and ushers in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. This combination of heat and moisture-rich air produces thunderstorms and heavy rainfall across the region. Monsoon rains reportedly supply 50-70% of the area’s annual precipitation.

Replenishing reservoirs and nourishing agriculture, these seasonal rains are a vital source of water in the typically arid southwest. Conversely, they can also cause a number of hazards such as flash flooding, damaging winds, dust storms, hail, and frequent lightning.

The wet phase of North American Monsoon typically runs from mid-June to the end of September.

The North American Monsoon pulls most air (green arrows) inland over the typically arid southwest region of the US. Source: NOAA/NWS

Wild Winds Whip Through NYC

Powerful winds battered the northeastern United States on Monday. More than 900 reports of wind damage were posted across the region.

Here in New York City, a high wind warning was issued by the NWS. Gusts reached as high as 58mph at LaGuardia Airport in Queens.

The strong winds downed trees around the five boroughs, tore awnings from restaurants, and even caused a partial scaffolding collapse at a building on Manhattan’s upper east side.  The tempest also prevented a cruise ship, the Norwegian Gem, from docking in the city. Loaded with passengers, gale force winds kept it sitting off the coast for hours. Significant airport delays and cancellations were also reported.

The reason for these blustery conditions, like most weather events, is about location. The region was wedged between an area of low pressure to the northeast and an area of high pressure to the west. As they moved closer together, a strong pressure gradient developed and the winds blew faster and faster.

Strong winds caused damage around NYC. Credit: NYPD 19th pct.

Weather Lingo: The Beaufort Wind Force Scale

From a light breeze to a strong gale, wind speed can be described in numerous ways. All of which are categorized on the Beaufort Wind Force Scale.

Developed in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort, an officer in the UK’s Royal Navy, the scale is an empirical measure of wind speed. It relates wind speed to observed conditions at sea and over land instead of using precise measurements. Simply put, it allows a person to estimate wind speed with visual clues.

Initially, it was only used at sea and was based on the effect the wind had on the sails of a frigate – the most common type of ship in the British Navy at the time. By the mid-1800s, the scale was adapted to also reflect a certain number of anemometer rotations – a device that measures wind speed.

In the early 20thcentury, most ships transitioned to steam power and the scale descriptions were changed to reflect the state of the sea instead of the sails. Around the same time, the scale was extended to land observations. For example, the amount of leaf, branch, or whole tree movement is a visual indicator of the force of the wind.

Today, the scale has 13 categories (0 -12), with 0 representing calm winds and 12 being hurricane force. It is in use in several countries around the globe.

In the US, when winds reach force 6 or higher, the NWS begins issuing advisories and warnings for different environments. For marine areas, force 6-7 winds would prompt a small craft advisory, force 8-9 would warrant a gale wind warning, and a wind reaching force 10-11 would call for a storm warning. Force 12 would constitute a hurricane-force wind warning. On land, winds expected to reach force 6 or higher would cause a high wind warning to be issued.

If the winds are connected to a tropical cyclone, they would be measured on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The same type of special circumstances would also hold for a tornado, which would be measured on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale. Credit: Isle of Wight Weather Ctr

Weather Lingo: Wind Chill

Temperature is one of the basic elements of weather.  Our perception of it, however, is often influenced by other environmental conditions. Wind, for example, can make a cold day feel even colder. This phenomenon is called the wind chill factor.

Wind chill is a measure of the apparent or “feels-like” temperature.  It calculates the heat loss from exposed human skin through the combined effects of air temperature and wind speed.

Essentially, the wind is carrying heat away from the body and allowing the skin to be exposed to cold air.  As the winds increase, heat is carried away at a faster rate and the colder the body feels.  For example, a temperature of 20°F and a wind speed of 5mph will produce a wind chill index of 13°F.  At that same temperature, but with a wind speed of 10mph, the wind chill index would be 9°F.

Extended exposure to low wind chill values can lead to frostbite and hypothermia, serious winter health hazards.

Cold and Windy Conditions Expected for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a long-standing holiday tradition in New York City.  For 92 years, it has marched rain or shine. Nevertheless, the weather has been a factor in the event several times over the years.

Famous for its giant character balloons, high winds are the main weather challenge for the parade. According to city guidelines, the multi-story balloons cannot fly if there are sustained winds in excess of 23 mph or gusts higher than 34 mph. These regulations were put in place following a 1997 incident where gusty winds sent the “Cat in the Hat” balloon careening into a light post, which caused debris to fall on and injure spectators.

The only time the balloons were grounded for the entire parade was in 1971, when torrential rain swept across the city. In 1989, a snowstorm brought the Big Apple a white Thanksgiving and the “Snoopy” and “Bugs Bunny” balloons had to be pulled from the parade because of damage from high winds.

This year, the wind could potentially be a problem again. Gusts are forecast to be between 20 and 30 mph during the parade hours. Temperatures are also expected to be a challenge. They are forecast to hover near record cold levels, with readings not getting out of the 20s. When the wind chill is factored  in, it will feel more like the single digits to low teens. This extreme cold will be more than a nuisance for holiday revelers, it will be dangerous. Frostbite is a real threat for anyone with exposed skin. So, bundle up if you are planning to be outside along the parade route.

Marching from West 77th Street to West 34th Street in Manhattan, the 92nd Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is scheduled to begin at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Paddington Bear Balloon floats down 6th Ave in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Credit: Macy’s

How Hurricanes are Classified

Hurricanes are one of nature’s most powerful storms. When formed in the Atlantic Ocean or North-Eastern Pacific, they are rated according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

Developed in the early 1970’s by Herbert Saffir, a civil engineer, and Dr. Robert Simpson of the National Hurricane Center, the scale classifies hurricanes into five categories based on the strength of their sustained winds. Each category is considered an estimate of the potential damage that a storm will cause if it makes landfall.  As conditions change within a storm, its category is re-assessed.

The different categories, 1 through 5, represent increasing wind speeds and escalating degrees of damage. Storms rated category 3 or higher are considered major hurricanes. The last category 5 storm to make landfall in the US was Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

While a useful tool, the Saffir-Simpson scale does not tell the whole story of the dangers to life and property posed by a hurricane. Regardless of category, these storms can produce dangerous storm surges in coastal areas and flooding rains further inland. Recent examples of these types of impacts were seen during Sandy and Harvey, respectively.

Wind Cave National Park and the Science Behind What Makes the Wind Blow

I recently visited Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, which protects a beautiful expanse of the Northern Great Plains as well as one of the largest and most complex cave systems in the world. While well known for its geology, the park’s namesake feature is also an excellent example of the science behind a basic weather phenomenon – wind.

Wind, which is air in motion, is the result of differences in atmospheric pressure. These pressure differences are caused by the temperature differences created by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface by the Sun.  Several factors contribute to this unbalanced process, including cloud cover, large bodies of water, topography, and vegetation.

As the surface warms, air heats and rises, creating an area of low pressure. To fill that void, air from an area of relatively higher-pressure rushes in, creating a flow of air that we recognize as wind. The greater the pressure differences between these two areas, the stronger the breeze.

Atmospheric pressure conditions at the cave entrance during my visit. Credit: Melissa Fleming

At Wind Cave, given its vast size, the air pressure inside the cave is constantly working to equalize with that above ground. Therefore, when there is an area of high pressure at the surface, the wind will blow into the cave. If there is an area of low pressure on the surface, the wind will blow out of the cave. For this reason, the cave is described in the oral histories of the Lakota – a Native American tribe who consider it scared – as “the hole that breathes cool air”.

Park Ranger demonstrates the flow of air coming out of the small cave entrance with a ribbon. Credit:RVDreamLife

While other large cave systems can generate barometric winds, those at Wind Cave are more noticeable because of the small size of its entrance. As the Venturi Effect shows, when space is constricted, air will flow faster. Legend says that the first non-native settlers to discover the cave – two brother named Jesse and Tom Bingham – did so by accident when the wind from its entrance blew the hat off one of their heads in 1881.

According to the NPS, winds at the cave’s natural entrance have reached up to 25-mph.

Wind Cave National Park, SD. Credit: Melissa Fleming

What is a Monsoon and How Do They Affect the US?

The summer phase of the North American Monsoon is in full swing. But what, you may wonder, is a monsoon and how do they affect the United States?

While most people associate a monsoon with rain, that is only half the story. It is actually a wind system. More specifically, according to NOAA, a monsoon is “a thermally driven wind arising from differential heating between a land mass and the adjacent ocean that reverses its direction seasonally.” In fact, the word monsoon is derived from the Arabic word “mausim”, meaning seasons or wind shift.

In general, a monsoon is like a large-scale sea breeze.  During the summer months, the sun heats both the land and sea, but the surface temperature of the land rises more quickly. As a result, an area of low pressure develops over the land and an area of relatively higher pressure sits over the ocean. This causes moisture-laden sea air to flow inland. As it rises and cools, it releases precipitation. In winter, this situation reverses and a dry season takes hold.

Monsoon wind systems exist in many different parts of the world. In the US, we have the North American Monsoon that impacts states across the southwest. Summer temperatures in the region – mostly desert – can be extremely hot. Readings in the triple digits are not uncommon. This intense heat generates a thermal low near the surface and draws in moist air from the nearby Gulf of California. In addition, an area of high pressure aloft, known as the subtropical ridge, typically moves northward over the southern U.S. in summer. Its clockwise circulation shifts the winds from a southwesterly to a southeasterly direction and ushers in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. This combination of heat and moisture rich air produces thunderstorms and heavy rainfall across the region. In fact, summer monsoon rains are reported to supply nearly 50% of the area’s annual precipitation.

Replenishing reservoirs and nourishing agriculture, these seasonal rains are a vital source of water in the typically arid southwest. Conversely, they can also cause a number of hazards such as flash flooding, damaging winds and hail, as well as frequent lightning.

Monsoon season in the American southwest typically runs from mid-June to the end of September.

The North American Monsoon pulls moist air (green arrows) inland over the typically arid southwest region of the US. Credit: NOAA/NWS

Powerful Thunderstorm Batters NYC

The first severe thunderstorm of the season barreled through the New York City metro area early Tuesday evening. Strong winds and heavy rain were reported across the region.

After an unseasonably hot and humid day, a fast moving cold front moved in from the west and triggered the violent storm.  According to the NWS, 0.58 inches of rain was reported in Central Park and wind gusts at JFK airport reached 55 mph. It is also interesting to note that the temperature in the city dropped from 88°F to 68°F in less than one hour.

The powerful and fast moving storm knocked down trees and caused power outages throughout the area. Rolling through the city a little after 5PM, the storm also wreaked havoc on the evening commute. All MetroNorth Railroad lines out of Grand Central Terminal were suspended because of downed trees on the tracks. Additionally, the city’s three airports reported significant delays.

Outside of the city, the storm turned deadly claiming the lives of at least five people. That number includes an eleven year old girl who was crushed by a tree while sitting in a car in Newburgh, NY. No injuries or fatalities were reported in the five boroughs.

A powerful thunderstorm moves across NYC. Credit: southerlysweet/Instagram