You may have heard of the Santa Anas if you have friends living on the west coast of the United States. Or you may be familiar with the name because you read about it in popular fiction. But the winds have been around for at least as long as there have been human beings living in the area to notice. Additionally, the winds have been blamed (among other issues) for various behavioral problems (just like the full moon). But what, exactly are the Santa Anas and why does it seem to have such adverse effects on some of us?
First off, from a meteorological angle, let’s ID what these winds are. The Santa Anas are hot, extremely dry, offshore winds that occur seasonally in Southern California, usually during October through December. They result from the buildup of air pressure in the high-altitude Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. When upper level winds are favorable, this high altitude air mass spills out of the Great Basin and is propelled gravitationally towards the southern California coastline, generally as a northeasterly wind*. (*source).
The winds primary claim to fame is that it is almost always responsible for spreading So Cal’s infamous wildfires. Having lived on the west coast for over a decade, I can personally attest as to the power of the Santa Anas. It is quite an experience to observe a shapeless, dynamic mass of fire skipping over eight lanes of concrete freeway moving towards dry vegetation (and buildings) as if it were a sentient being, and, then watching it incremate everything in its path.
In fact, the acrid smell of burning wood used to be a pleasant indicator of cooler temperatures because it meant that someone had built a fire in their hearth. But having lived through several wildfires, one of which actually caused me to have to pack up my shit on a moment’s notice and evacuate to a safe area, the smell of burning wood now causes dread because it makes me wonder where the fire is and how close it is to where I live.
Spreading destruction and devastation via wildfire is one thing, but what is it about this wind that also causes some mentally unstable people to act out?
Is it the actual wind itself that is the causative factor, or are these nutjobs just doing what they think they ought to be because popular culture has glorified mental illness by marketing it as reality television?
As an aside here, American author, Joan Didion wrote an excellent article called The Santa Ana back in 1965 on human behavior and the winds.
I had wanted to include psychiatric hospitalization statistics, particularly those of an involuntary nature during the months of October through December, however there was no way to intelligently extrapolate the official data from the California Department of Mental Health annual reports. The State does not track involuntary holds by specific months, and so I have no basis to even speculate as to how many admissions there may be into the psych ward using the Santa Anas as a proximate cause.
Whatever the motivating factor is that causes some to exhibit anti-social behavior and otherwise become a danger to themselves and/or others, I know that this much is certain about the Santa Anas. Starting in the Fall, the ground is nearly completely covered with palm fronds and bits of paper and unidentified debris each morning. It almost seems like there was a huge block party the night before attended by phantoms. And if you have allergies, then these winds will feel to you like every single asshole on the planet with a leaf blower assembled in town for a four-month long convention to torture your upper respiratory system.
We may never have a scientific explanation as to the psychological effects the Santa Ana winds may have on the human population, but in the meantime, it serves as an annual reminder to those of us out west that Mother Nature is firmly in charge.
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