By Andrew Stuart
For this episode, Nature Notes is teaming up with “West Texas Wonders” – a new reporting series, where listeners ask questions and Marfa Public Radio finds answers. Adele Powers lives in Marfa.
“Windy season is the bane of my existence,” Powers said, “and I think for a lot of other people too. I remember getting on my bike a couple years ago, and I couldn’t ride it because I was being blown off. It seems like this miserable thing – and I want to know why it happens.”
E.V. Smalley brought it to the attention of a cosmopolitan audience in an 1893 article in the Atlantic. There was, he wrote, “an alarming amount of insanity… in the prairie States among farmers and their wives.”
Social isolation was blamed for this “prairie madness.” There were also the elements – the land’s immensity, and its harsh weather. In particular, the wind could drive pioneers batty.
“Prairie madness” may have faded. But windy season still tests the patience of West Texans.
Springtime in West Texas has ample beauty – the bloom of a claret cup in the chaparral, the piercing song of a Cassin’s sparrow. But from February to May, we face the prospect of fierce winds. Sustained winds of 20, 30, 40 miles an hour are routine. Dust coats every surface.
The ordeal is tied to the global phenomenon known as the jet stream.
In summer, an area of high atmospheric pressure stalls over our region. Conditions are still – so still one yearns for a breeze. As summer lengthens, moisture moves into West Texas, and, with luck, brings the relief of monsoon rains.
But in winter, the pattern changes. From Canada, the jet stream moves south. It’s a ribbon of fast-moving air, flowing from west to east, high in the atmosphere.
It can bring winter storms to our region. More often, storms pass farther north – and what we get is wind.
Rick Hluchan is a National Weather Service meteorologist in Midland.
“That’s why spring is very volatile,” Hluchan said. “We have many, many systems that come through, sometimes once a week, where ahead of the storm system we’ll have a get a strong southwest wind, which is very dry, because it comes off the mountains in Mexico. Usually right behind that system, as it moves past, we’ll get a front in from the north, so the winds change to the north, and sometimes can be just as strong.”
Differences in atmospheric pressure create wind – wind is air rushing from an area of higher to lower pressure. The jet stream drives these “pressure gradients.”
“When we have a storm system, like we typically do in the springtime, moving in from the west or the northwest, behind the cold front is an area of high pressure,” Hluchan said, “and typically ahead of the cold front is an area of low pressure, and so right in between the two is where you get your strong winds.”
The jet stream’s location is shaped by distant forces, which in turn influence winds here. In “El Niño” years, warm Pacific Ocean waters create a more southerly jet stream – and a windier spring.
Terrain is a factor. On the windiest days, wind is generally evenly distributed across our region. But places near mountains – Marfa, Alpine, Carlsbad – can see stronger gusts, as gravity brings “downsloping” winds from higher elevations.
Pioneers often began by planting trees near their homes. They knew what they were about. It’s finally topography that makes our winds so battering – in vast, treeless expanses, there’s simply nothing to slow the wind.
The irritations and perils of wind are manifest. The windy season is also our driest, and that can mean catastrophic wildfires.
But does wind also play a creative role?
Indeed it does. For grasses, pines and junipers, wind is the mechanism for pollination. Without wind, there would be no grasslands.
Michael Nickell is the Sibley Center’s museum scientist.
“Grasses produce copious quantities of pollen,” Nickell said. “With the wind, you produce a lot of pollen, enough is going to find the sweet spot on the female parts of the flower and pollinate. It’s a matter of shotgun shooting.”
West Texas is, as Lubbock-born songwriter Butch Hancock put it, “the wind’s dominion.” Understanding its sources, and its role, may make that fact easier to bear.