Names of winds have fascinated me for a long time. They are so evocative, so beautiful: Mistral, Scirocco, Zonda, Pampero, Santa Ana, Harmattan, Papagayo, Zephyr, and so many more. Sometimes the same wind has different names in different places.
The Wind Cries ... Oe?
By MARK VANHOENACKER
Published: December 23, 2013
But this Aeolian aristocracy raises as many questions as it does Scrabble scores. Why are some winds named? And are Americans ready to rediscover their own terroir of tempests?
Named breezes, says Vladimir Jankovic, a scientist at the University of Manchester in England, usually have distinct personalities — a recognizable cocktail of strength, season, direction, temperature, duration or precipitation. A name, then, is a forecast. But winds carry the force of history and myth as much as weather.
It was Hippocrates, after all, who said a physician should know which breezes cause flabbiness and which induce humid heads. A 19th-century description of London’s northeasterly winter blasts, Dr. Jankovic notes, warned of a catalog of side effects befitting a 21st-century pharmaceutical ad — among them “a sense of impending suffocation” and “restless sleep wetted by uncontrollable salivating.” No wonder many Britons vacation in South Africa, where the Cape Doctor is famed (and named) for its healthful influences.
Mental health, too, was often held to be wind-borne. Legend has it that the Khamsin, known for elevating both “temperatures and tempers,” was a mitigating factor when Arabian judges sentenced criminals. When California’s Santa Anas blow, wrote Raymond Chandler, “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”
The Greeks had a kaleidoscopic compass of wind gods, and numerous named winds still fly the Mediterranean’s skies. Two Volkswagen models, the Scirocco and the Bora, are named for Mediterranean and Adriatic winds. (A third, Passat, means “trade wind.”)
Destructive winds often have particularly strong brand identities. In her 2007 book “An Ocean of Air,” Gabrielle Walker chronicles the Piteraq, a Greenland wind gusty enough to toss sled dogs skyward; its force is occasionally measured by how much it damages a wind gauge. In the Adriatic, scientists can map the Bora’s path by the density of stones used in roof construction. The Santa Anas all but breathe wildfire.
In contrast to California, which also has Sundowners and Diablos, New England’s skies seem culturally impoverished. Herman Melville found no local name for what howled around New Bedford’s Spouter-Inn in “Moby-Dick” (he resorted to Euroclydon, the wind that wrecked St. Paul’s ship as he sailed from Greece to Italy). Perhaps New England’s breezes are just hard to pigeonhole. Mark Twain’s New England forecast: “Probably nor’east to sou’west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard, and points between.”
California, though, has nothing on Hawaii. The wind beneath the wings of the Hawaiian-born Bette Midler could be a Ho’oluawahakole, a Malamalamamaikai or any of hundreds of other orthographic jawbreakers (best check a wind map). Many names have fallen from use, but they once carried enormous cultural weight, says Steven Businger, a meteorologist at the University of Hawaii.
Hawaii’s lexicon of winds is surely America’s richest, but it isn’t entirely alone. Chicago has the evocatively named Hawk wind, and the Great Lakes have the Witch of November, notorious for sinking the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, with the loss of all 29 men aboard, in November 1975. Gore Vidal named “Williwaw,” his first novel, for the Aleutian Islands’ bitter blasts. But the most famous North American wind is undoubtedly the Chinook (co-marketed with a salmon, a helicopter and New Hampshire’s state dog).
What is the future of named winds? Dr. Jankovic says climate change may strengthen some, weaken others, and make others “more nomadic.” In Nigeria, climatologists have linked recent disruptions of the Harmattan to climate change. Will the cultural character of a named wind adapt with the weather? Or will the names of some changed winds be forgotten, artifacts of a former climate?
Other wind names, conversely, may become more important, especially if wind-driven disasters like dust storms, wildfires and even nuclear accidents grow more common. And climate change may conjure entirely new winds. Proposals to geo-engineer cooler sea breezes for Tokyo, for example, practically demand a great name.
If few Americans outside California know their local winds by name, perhaps our mobility is partly to blame. To name a wind is to live somewhere long enough to know a place intimately.
Still, ours is an age that venerates all things local. Could named local winds be ready for an American renaissance?
There are tantalizing precedents. A 1997 contest in Portland, Ore., that might today be mistaken for an episode of “Portlandia” invited suggestions for the “cold and crazy” east wind from the Columbia River Gorge. The winner was Coho; memorable losers included Columbia Screamer, Brutal Bellows and Big Bad Momma.
What about jet streams? As a pilot, may I suggest we ennoble something other than jets? The aviator Wiley Post chronicled these high, fast winds that speed or impede us. The first pilot to fly solo around the world, he died in the Alaskan crash that killed Will Rogers. “Folks, flight time to Raleigh is just four hours today, thanks to the Post Winds.” I like it.
As for the trans-Atlantic jet stream, its importance became clear during World War II resupply efforts. Let’s christen it the Allied Wind, and let generations of schoolchildren learn why.
And a humble suggestion for the icy, northwesterly breeze that so often benumbs New York City. Capt. Albert Theberge, a historian at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told me about a boatswain he once knew on a NOAA vessel who described one East Coast howler this way: “It blowed so hard, it blowed a rooster up a bottle.”
So: the Rooster Bottler. A wind or a cocktail? In this city, this winter, it could be both.