I took a long walk along the beach with the dog today, and the sky pushed me over.
It roared and shrieked and howled, great gusts of meteorological rage out of a clear blue sky, and eventually I was flung off the sea wall (don’t worry, it’s only 2 feet high) and lay there on my back, on the sand, staring up into the blue while Kai barked at me.
Britain has exciting weather. If you’re into weather, Britain is a treat. Quite a lot of it includes rain, but sometimes you get beautiful days like today, with endless blue skies that make the heart sing, and icy winds that instantly flay the skin from your body and scatter your sad, tattered remains across the beaches of either Norway or Ireland, depending on which direction the wind is (savagely) blowing.
So for the second day in a row I lay on the ground, and considered what the world was trying to tell me.
Was it saying, Move to southern Spain, Mike? Yes it was. But that’s not relevant to this story.
I stared at the clouds racing overhead.
Ah. I see. Of course.
I challenge you to go out on the next really windy day and tell me what’s actually happening above your head.
You’ve probably picked up a bit of knowledge from TV weather reports: highs, lows, fronts, the Gulf Stream (or whatever great oceanic current is mucking around with your country’s weather systems), those big arrows pointing everywhere so dramatically on your TV news weather map.
But be honest – it’s all absolutely useless when you’re outside. Wind is invisible. You can lick a finger and work out which direction it’s coming from, but – what exactly does that mean? And how do you actually read the wind?
I had absolutely no idea, so I picked myself up and came home to find out.
There are two types of wind you’ll encounter when you go for a walk, says Tristan Gooley in The Walker’s Guide To Outdoor Clues And Signs.
First, you need to learn your local winds. These are the steady, stiff breezes and great rushing exhalations that spring up whenever the sun warms the land. Inland air heats up and rises – and cold air rushes in from elsewhere to fill the void. Yes, that’s wind in a nutshell – but local winds change quickly, sometimes changing directions multiple times every day.
Sea breezes spring up in the morning because the shoreline warms quicker than the sea, sending cold air rushing inland – and in the evening, the exact reverse happens.
If you’re near mountains, you’ll be buffeted by a splendidly-named katabatic wind (“katabatic” sounds like a brand of washing powder for Klingons, but it’s actually from the Greek word for “descending”). High cold air will roar down on you as you climb your mountain in the morning, and warmer air (anabatic) will try to prevent you from coming down off it towards sunset. It’s a perfectly frustrating setup. If katabatic winds were people, you’d block them on Facebook.
Next, you learn your weather winds. These are the great monstrous currents of the air so beloved by weather reports, and they operate on two levels – high and low. High weather winds tend to tug low weather winds along, like parents tugging errant children – but, usefully for walkers, they don’t always go in the same direction. (Sometimes, the children rebel.)
And that’s how you can read the wind.
Imagine for a second that you’re stood with the (lower) wind at your back – and you’re pretty sure it’s not a local wind.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, wind systems will rotate in an anticlockwise fashion. (For those of you in the southern hemisphere, it’s clockwise.) Weather winds will circle areas of low pressure. So if you’re north of the equator, standing with the wind at your back, point vaguely to the left – you’re now pointing roughly at where that low pressure point is.
Now – look at the direction the highest clouds are going, ie. the direction the high weather winds are blowing.
- If they’re going to your right, then warm air is advancing – and consequently, clouds will form and the chances of being rained on later today are unfortunately pretty high. Well, damn.
- If they’re going to your left, the wind is cold air, seeking out that point of low pressure in the distance – and the skies are probably going to clear (or remain clear). Yay!
- And if they’re going the same direction as the wind at your back, well, you’re stuck with the weather you have right now. Congratulations / I’m so sorry!
I suspect this won’t always work, but most days, it’s apparently pretty reliable.
You can find more nature-reading tips at Tristan’s website, The Natural Navigator – and the book’s a treat. It won’t be the last time I plunder it for advice as I write this series.
(Also, fun fact: I searched on Google for tips on “reading the wind” – and every entry on the first page was about shooting guns more accurately. Ah, modern life.)
Every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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