Ask A Native Angeleno: What Makes The 'Santa Ana Winds' Different From Regular Old Wind?
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Dear Native Angeleno,
How are the Santa Ana Winds different from regular old wind? Are they actually a specific kind of wind, or just a descriptor? Why do you guys make a such a big deal out of them? I don't get it.
Looking For Answers in Los Feliz
A Native Los Angeleno responds:
This is a great question, thank you for writing. Let's start with the simplest part of your query—how the Santa Anas differ from "regular old wind."
The Santa Ana winds are a specific meteorological phenomenon associated with hot, dry winds during the cooler months in Los Angeles. The winds are infamous for fanning both wildfires and a certain je ne sais quoi in the already unstable psyche of the natives as they blow in from the desert (local lore has long linked them to increases in violence and crime). Though the Santa Anas are most commonly thought of as a late fall occurrence, they can make an appearance anytime from roughly September to May.
But what about when it's raining in June and super windy and you get a text from your friend Amy being like "Ahhh, I love the Santa Anas!! [three irrelevant emojis] ["Ramond Chandler" misquote] Miss u, let's get brunch!! Are those Santa Anas?
No Amy, just no. Those are not Santa Anas, brunch is for monsters and that's not even how you spell Raymond Chandler. Honestly, Santa Ana Wind misidentification is one of the easiest ways to tell if someone is from Iowa, and we strongly advise that you take measures to avoid it.
When this happens, which is more often than you'd think, us natives have to just silently stew and be like I'm sorry, do you see any meek little wives feeling the edges of their carving knives and studying their husband's necks? Has a single booze party ended in a fight? Have you even tried to get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge? I think not, because it's June and it's raining and those aren't fucking Santa Ana winds. You feel?
Repeat after us: not every wind in Los Angeles is a Santa Ana.
And, contrary to popular belief, the warmth of Santa Ana winds has nothing to do with desert heat. In fact, the desert isn't even particularly warm during this season of the year. As the winds travel downslope into the L.A. Basin from a relatively higher elevation, the air is compressed, which causes it to heat. Here's a little more info on that process from the UCLA Atmospheric & Oceanic Science center's excellent Santa Ana Winds FAQ:
The Great Basin resides at a higher elevation than the LA Basin, which is near sea level. The air flowing into Southern California, forming the Santa Anas winds, is subsiding. When air descends, it is compressed, and its temperature rises. Dry (unsaturated) air warms on descent at a rate of 10C/km or almost 30F per mile -- an incredible rate. That means if you take a piece of air located a only mile above your head, and brought it down to your feet, it would wind up 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than when it started. You don't need to change the altitude of air very much to alter its temperature significantly.
So, to be clear, the Santa Ana Winds are a specific weather phenomenon, and not just a cool-sounding way of describing any kind of strong wind when you want to sound dramatic. And if you ever want to know for sure whether or not the hot wind blowing is actually a Santa Ana, you can check this handy website from the University of San Diego (big ups to LAist commenter Thisone for bringing the site to our attention).
Now, on to the second part of your question: why do we Angelenos make such a big deal out of the Santa Ana winds? My smart friend Adrian Glick Kudler nailed it in a wonderful piece on the Santa Ana mythos for Curbed earlier this year when she wrote "Like every other common thing in Los Angeles, like everything else around here that Didion has turned her heavy-lidded eyes to, the winds have become a part of the story we tell ourselves about being Angelenos, like earthquakes and irritating development executives at parties, a mysterious force exotic enough to the folks Back East that they can use it to dismiss us."
The Santa Anas are part of our invented origin stories and our common language; they are one of the very few things that all Angelenos experience in our sprawling, fragmented city. In fact, we have only three true civic icons, unbound to a specific location, and the mythic winds are one of them (palm trees and the searing promise/disappointment of the California dream are civic icons two and three, respectively). Would you ask a Parisian why the Eiffel Tower so often figures into representations of their city? I think not. This is our civic iconography, y'all, and it just so happens to be a hot, dry wind and the difficult to pinpoint but unshakable feeling of doom that blows in with it!