How the Wind Blows.
Posted on 21 Jan 2023
It is the set of the sails, not the direction of the wind that determines which way we will go. - Jim Rohn.
What can be more familiar to us than the wind and weather around us? We experience it in all its forms on a daily basis, and are familiar with weather maps and the notion of accurate, long term weather forecasting giving us detailed information of all the constituent parts.
To actually define what wind is, we could say that it is the relative flow of air (and other gasses) relative to a planet’s surface. Wind itself can come in many forms, from devastating thunderstorms that last just a few minutes, to refreshing local breezes that waft through our windows, to global winds that can carry high-altitude adventurers in balloons across vast distances.
But our ancestors have often viewed the wind in different ways, and looked at the wind as actually being the weather itself, only existing in a single place.
Our modern word ‘weather’ comes from the old English word ‘weder’, which means air, sky, breeze, and originates from the even more ancient Proto-Germanic word ‘wedram’ meaning wind or weather, interchangeably. It is even thought that these roots date back to long lost languages of the Neolithic era.
Our ancestors may well have had an inkling of how the weather itself works in reality, as the wind can be seen as the core force behind all the weather we experience. It is the transportation system that brings us the weather in all its forms, from rain, fog, snow, thunderstorms to those gray and mundane days that we barely notice.
The fastest wind speed ever recorded was an incredible 11,000mph - admittedly not on our own planet, but a relatively safe 190 light years away on a celestial globe known as HD 80606 b. This pales into insignificance if we were to loosen our notion of what the wind is, and look at solar winds that travel at around 890,000mph, occasionally entering our own atmosphere. These charged particles that are released from the upper atmosphere of our sun can sometimes cause geomagnetic storms on earth, affecting electronics and power grids, as well as beautiful auroras (or Polar Lights) and the tails of comets that point away from the sun.
On our own planet, the highest recorded wind speed was in Australia - Barrow Island experienced a gust of 253mph during tropical cyclone Olivia on 10 April 1996.
What influence can a fictional character, marooned on a desert island have on our advanced weather forecasting models of today? It is not so much the character, but his imaginative creator that first gave us the idea that wind was a circulatory system. Before Daniel Defoe, the weather was thought to exist in a single place, and the weather in one location did not have any effect on the weather in another.
One day in 1703, a great storm (unsurprisingly known as ‘The Great Storm’) swept across Europe. It caused an incredible amount of devastation, including around 20% of the Royal Navy being destroyed, with one ship even being blown 15 miles inland. Defoe decided to chronicle the storm, and asked people to send him their own stories and experiences of the event. To his surprise, he also received stories from as far away as France and Germany, and realized that rather than existing in a single place, the storm traveled across Europe and into the Baltic sea. He documented these stores in his book, also unsurprisingly named, “The Storm”.
Later in 1743, the American polymath Benjamin Franklin was attempting to view a lunar eclipse. His attempts were unsuccessful as he experienced cloud cover at the exact time the eclipse occurred. However, he later heard that his colleagues in a different location were able to view the eclipse without any clouds, and only experienced the cloud cover an hour after the event had passed. Franklin realized that the wind had transported the clouds from one place to another, and that to understand the weather, it was necessary to understand the wind.
It was not until 1858 however that a truly giant leap occurred in the world of meteorology, when William Ferrel, a self-taught amateur scientist published a short four-page paper entitled “The Influence of the Earth’s Rotation Upon the Relative Motion of Bodies Near its Surface”. The paper presented the elegant mathematical principles of the three dimensional flow of air over a rotating sphere, such as the one we know as planet Earth. As with many great discoveries, his brilliant work was overshadowed by a similar, and marginally later paper by the Dutch meteorologist Christoph Buys Ballot, who was credited with the discovery for many years.
This variable and endless natural phenomenon is caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, mainly due to temperature differences that cause the global circulation of wind, and resulting weather patterns. Air flows from high pressure areas to the lower ones, creating winds of different speeds.
At the equator, the sun heats the land and sea, the resulting warm air rises and makes its way to the poles, creating a low-pressure system. This movement of warm air upwards creates in turn a high pressure system where colder air moves over the earth’s surface to replace the warm. The two systems meet at a ‘front’, and it is the complex interrelationships between fronts that create our variety of weather patterns.
Local wind patterns are normally caused by the heating of land surfaces, whereas the global, large-scale atmospheric wind patterns are generally caused by either the temperature differences between the equator and the poles, and the actual rotation of our planet, known as the Coriolis effect.
Different geographic areas can experience specific variations, such as in the tropics and sub-tropics, where thermal low air circulations can cause monsoons, and in coastal areas where the sea breeze and land breeze cycle can generate localized wind patterns.
Where the land meets the sea, solar radiation causes land to heat faster than water, meaning that coastal areas can experience gentle breezes as the sun rises.
Wind can even shape the surface of our earth; through the process of aeolian, wind can mold and shape land formations by eroding, transforming and transporting materials across the land. Sand dunes are constantly changing shape and even seem to move by the process of sand being deposited on their windward side, which eventually collapses under its own weight.
The power of the wind has been harnessed through time for transportation. It powered the sailing ships that were used to cross the Nile by the ancient Egyptians, and the tea clippers (such as Cutty Sark ) that opened up trade routes around the world. The fastest sailing ship is currently the “Syroco vs SP80”, which can travel at an astounding 78mph only using the power of the wind.
Today, the power of the wind is being increasingly harnessed, and is the primary non-hydro sustainable source of energy, generating 1592TwH, almost as much as all the other renewable energy sources combined. Wind power stations are more cost effective than their fossil fuel burning counterparts, create jobs, and with the help of accurate weather forecasting data, are effective, sustainable and often local sources of clean energy.
Influence of Wind
Nature molds and shapes the wind, and resulting weather patterns we experience. This in turn affects our lives in countless ways. The interdependence of natural phenomena, weather patterns and human society is complex, yet in part also predictable. In our next article we will examine our planet’s weather patterns, and how they affect our daily lives.
The OpenWeather Global Weather Alerts product can be used to receive push notifications of severe weather conditions. These alerts contain detailed information about the impending conditions to give a vital time to plan and mitigate potential risks. This data includes details that include solid wind or hurricanes, severity, certainty, start and end times etc.
Other wind information can be obtained from the OpenWeather Weather Maps 2.0, which gives visual map layers that include a separate wind layer to allow users to visualize wind directions, anywhere in the world.
Jim Rohn may well have been speaking metaphorically when he described the direction of the wind. However in reality, when we feel the wind in our faces, we are experiencing the fundamental force behind weather cycles, on our planet and beyond.
At OpenWeather, we create highly recognizable weather products, aimed at the needs of our customers, that make working with weather data effective and straightforward.
The wide variety of these products work across a multitude of enterprises, and include a vast range of forecasts including minute forecast, observation and historic information for any global location. Our industry-standard, fast, reliable APIs streamline flexible integration with enterprise systems. Our pricing and licensing is transparent.
For more information on how to gain access to our OpenWeather products, please email us.