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The hot winds that whip through Southern California, rushing from the desert to the ocean, are so strong they’re the stuff of legends.
The Santa Ana winds “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” author Raymond Chandler famously wrote in 1938.
Some false myths connect the blustery Santa Anas with strong earthquakes. A few Californians call them “devil winds“ and blame them for peoples’ weird or dangerous behavior.
Although it’s unlikely they really make people act strangely, the winds can cause real destruction.
According to researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles, the warm winds dry out vegetation, making it great kindling for wildfires. Then the winds, often blowing at more than 40 miles per hour, can help fires spread faster and farther.
What makes any wind blow so hard and fast?
It starts with a change in temperature. According to Britannica, when air warms up, it rises. This leaves space for colder air to move in, and we experience that movement as wind.
The Santa Anas become especially strong because they flow from high elevations, in the mountains and desert, to low elevations along the coast, according to ABC News in San Diego. Then, as the winds move downslope, the air compresses — making it hot. It’s also pushed and funneled through canyons — making it fast.
Some of the strongest winds elsewhere in the country are twisted up in tornadoes. Common in the Midwest, tornadoes are created when wet, warm air meets dry, cold air.
According to National Geographic, this collision typically produces a thunderstorm. When the warmer air rises through the colder air, it creates an “updraft” of air — which will start rotating if winds are whipping in the right speeds and directions.
This can produce a funnel cloud which, if it sinks to the ground, becomes a tornado. The winds inside a tornado can blow anywhere from 40 to more than 300 miles per hour.
Tornadoes, like the Santa Anas, are responsible for a few legends of their own.
Some towns, lucky to have dodged tornadoes’ paths, have stories that a nearby river or mound protected them. One old story, told to The Oklahoman newspaper, says a butcher knife stuck in the path of a storm will split it, protecting the town in its path.
None of these stories, though, have much real evidence. And if the winds start blowing too fast near you, put your kite — and butcher knife — away and head to the basement where it’s safe.