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9.17: Local Winds

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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How can they stand up?

When you try to walk against a 20 mile an hour wind it's not easy. Just standing up is like walking really fast!

Local Winds

Local winds result from air moving between small low and high pressure systems. High and low pressure cells are created by a variety of conditions. Some local winds have very important effects on the weather and climate of some regions.

Land and Sea Breezes

Since water has a very high specific heat, it maintains its temperature well. So water heats and cools more slowly than land. If there is a large temperature difference between the surface of the sea (or a large lake) and the land next to it, high and low pressure regions form. This creates local winds.

  • Sea breezes blow from the cooler ocean over the warmer land in summer. Where is the high pressure zone and where is the low pressure zone? (Figure below). Sea breezes blow at about 10 to 20 km (6 to 12 miles) per hour and lower air temperature much as 5 to 10oC (9 to 18oF).
  • Land breezes blow from the land to the sea in winter. Where is the high pressure zone and where is the low pressure zone? Some warmer air from the ocean rises and then sinks on land, causing the temperature over the land to become warmer.

How do sea and land breezes moderate coastal climates?

Land and sea breezes create the pleasant climate for which Southern California is known. The effect of land and sea breezes are felt only about 50 to 100 km (30 to 60 miles) inland. This same cooling and warming effect occurs to a smaller degree during day and night, because land warms and cools faster than the ocean.

Monsoon Winds

Monsoon winds are larger scale versions of land and sea breezes; they blow from the sea onto the land in summer and from the land onto the sea in winter. Monsoon winds occur where very hot summer lands are next to the sea. Thunderstorms are common during monsoons (Figure below).

In the southwestern United States relatively cool moist air sucked in from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California meets air that has been heated by scorching desert temperatures.

The most important monsoon in the world occurs each year over the Indian subcontinent. More than two billion residents of India and southeastern Asia depend on monsoon rains for their drinking and irrigation water. Back in the days of sailing ships, seasonal shifts in the monsoon winds carried goods back and forth between India and Africa.

Mountain and Valley Breezes

Temperature differences between mountains and valleys create mountain and valley breezes. During the day, air on mountain slopes is heated more than air at the same elevation over an adjacent valley. As the day progresses, warm air rises and draws the cool air up from the valley, creating a valley breeze. At night the mountain slopes cool more quickly than the nearby valley, which causes a mountain breeze to flow downhill.

Katabatic Winds

Katabatic winds move up and down slopes, but they are stronger mountain and valley breezes. Katabatic winds form over a high land area, like a high plateau. The plateau is usually surrounded on almost all sides by mountains. In winter, the plateau grows cold. The air above the plateau grows cold and sinks down from the plateau through gaps in the mountains. Wind speeds depend on the difference in air pressure over the plateau and over the surroundings. Katabatic winds form over many continental areas. Extremely cold katabatic winds blow over Antarctica and Greenland.

Chinook Winds (Foehn Winds)

Chinook winds (or Foehn winds) develop when air is forced up over a mountain range. This takes place, for example, when the westerly winds bring air from the Pacific Ocean over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. As the relatively warm, moist air rises over the windward side of the mountains, it cools and contracts. If the air is humid, it may form clouds and drop rain or snow. When the air sinks on the leeward side of the mountains, it forms a high pressure zone. The windward side of a mountain range is the side that receives the wind; the leeward side is the side where air sinks.

The descending air warms and creates strong, dry winds. Chinook winds can raise temperatures more than 20oC (36oF) in an hour and they rapidly decrease humidity. Snow on the leeward side of the mountain melts quickly. If precipitation falls as the air rises over the mountains, the air will be dry as it sinks on the leeward size. This dry, sinking air causes a rainshadow effect (Figure below), which creates many of the world’s deserts.

As air rises over a mountain it cools and loses moisture, then warms by compression on the leeward side. The resulting warm and dry winds are Chinook winds. The leeward side of the mountain experiences rainshadow effect.

Santa Ana Winds

Santa Ana winds are created in the late fall and winter when the Great Basin east of the Sierra Nevada cools, creating a high pressure zone. The high pressure forces winds downhill and in a clockwise direction (because of Coriolis). The air pressure rises, so temperature rises and humidity falls. The winds blow across the Southwestern deserts and then race downhill and westward toward the ocean. Air is forced through canyons cutting the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. (Figure below).

The winds are especially fast through Santa Ana Canyon, for which they are named. Santa Ana winds blow dust and smoke westward over the Pacific from Southern California.

The Santa Ana winds often arrive at the end of California’s long summer drought season. The hot, dry winds dry out the landscape even more. If a fire starts, it can spread quickly, causing large-scale devastation (Figure below).

In October 2007, Santa Ana winds fueled many fires that together burned 426,000 acres of wild land and more than 1,500 homes in Southern California.

Desert Winds

High summer temperatures on the desert create high winds, which are often associated with monsoon storms. Desert winds pick up dust because there is not as much vegetation to hold down the dirt and sand. (Figure below). A haboob forms in the downdrafts on the front of a thunderstorm.

A haboob in the Phoenix metropolitan area, Arizona.

Dust devils, also called whirlwinds, form as the ground becomes so hot that the air above it heats and rises. Air flows into the low pressure and begins to spin. Dust devils are small and short-lived, but they may cause damage.


  • Water has high specific heat, so its temperature changes very slowly relative to the temperature of the land. This is the reason for sea and land breezes and monsoon winds.
  • The cause of all of these winds is the differential heating of Earth's surface, whether it's due to the difference in water and land, the difference with altitude, or something else.
  • Winds blow up and down slope, on and off land and sea, through deserts or over mountain passes.


Use these resources to answer the questions that follow.

1. What are Chinook winds?

2. Where do Chinook winds occur?

3. Explain how Chinook winds work.

4. What are the Santa Ana winds?

5. Where do the Santa Ana winds occur?

6. What causes the Santa Ana winds?

7. Explain how the Santa Ana winds affects the weather.

8. What can be caused by the Santa Ana winds?


1. How does the high specific heat of water result in the formation of sea and land breezes?

2. Describe the conditions that lead to Santa Ana winds.

3. How do Chinook winds lead to rainshadow effect?

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Chinook (foehn) wind Winds that form when low pressure draws air over a mountain range.
haboob Desert sandstorms that form in the downdrafts of a thunderstorm.
katabatic wind Winds that move down a slope.
land breeze A wind that blows from land to sea in winter when the ocean is warmer than the land.
monsoon Hot land draws cool air off a nearby sea creating large winds and often rain.
mountain breeze A wind that blows from a mountain to a valley at night when mountain air is cooler.
rainshadow effect A location of little rain on the leeward side of a mountain range due to descending air.
Santa Ana winds Hot winds that blow east to west into Southern California in fall and winter.
sea breeze A wind that blows from sea to land in summer when the land is warmer than the ocean.
valley breeze An uphill airflow.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade

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Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 06, 2016
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