The question of how to live with the wind is answered with bitter resignation and gritted teeth. How to talk about the wind—without cursing—has different answers.
I’ve been a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service for more than fifteen years now. My duties involve recording temperature and precipitation data; wind isn’t part of the daily assignment, unless it rises to the standard of “damaging,” in which case I have a checkbox. But since the wind is a regular if not persistent presence here, I’ve started noting “wind” in the comment section of my data sheets on days when its presence is demonstrably annoying. That bland remark becomes less than informative when it occurs repeatedly, so I sometimes mix things up with “wind, again” or “high winds.”
There’s a better method, although I haven’t used it. Sir Francis Beaufort originally developed the wind scale that bears his name in 1805. Beaufort was a British naval officer, and he developed the scale in his private log, ranking wind conditions for their effects on the set of his ship’s sails. His wasn’t the first wind chart; in a fact sheet on the subject, Britain’s National Meteorological Library and Archive notes that people no doubt began classifying wind and weather as soon as they started venturing out to sea. Daniel Defoe recorded a “table of degrees” in 1703, consisting of what he described as “bald terms used by our sailors.”
Beaufort aimed for uniformity over “bald terms,” using and refining his scheme throughout his seagoing career. In 1831, while serving as Hydrographer of the Navy, he commissioned the voyage of the HMS Beagle (of Darwin fame), during which the scale was first officially used. Seven years later, the British Admiralty commanded that Beaufort’s Wind Scale be used in the logbooks of Royal ships. As steam engines began to replace sails, its calibrations were matched to the appearance of wind effects on the sea; wave heights and wind speeds in knots (eventually converted into miles per hour for landlubbers) came later. A chart of land-based effects was added in 1906 by a fellow named George Simpson, who also created a helpful illustration.
The Beaufort Wind Scale pairs standardized terminology with the simple empiricism of observation. Committing to shared terms means one person’s “Light Air” or “Fresh Breeze” is meant to be roughly the same as anyone else’s. Since the wind affects water and trees in consistent ways, calibrating Force levels according to those external phenomena tempers subjectivity. Yet perception is the Beaufort’s mechanism: there are no tools to purchase or maintain. The scale operates according to the quality of users’ attention to their surroundings. An anemometer might be numerically precise, but “leaves rustle” and “whistling in wires” and “resistance felt walking” have the consequence of embodied detail.
So, if I admire the scale, why not use it? It’s not like I just found out about it: the hard copy I printed off the Internet but then filed away is dated February 7, 2014.
Having spent some time over the past few days researching the Beaufort’s history and thinking about how it works and why it’s lasted, I’ve located two points of resistance. The first has to do with taking the time to learn the terms and linking them to the proper phenomena. In other words, I don’t use the Beaufort Scale because I’m too lazy to learn it. The second reason has to do with the very thing that makes the device so enduringly useful: the standardized classifications.
I’m sorry, but describing a Force 6 wind as a “Strong Breeze” just doesn’t cut it. The wind outside at this very moment is running 25 mph plus, and I can assure you there is nothing breezy about it. To characterize conditions that set the pine trees desperately waving their many arms and the power lines moaning as a “Breeze,” strong or otherwise, crosses a line from dry British understatement to sarcasm. Force 7’s “Near Gale” gets closer to reality: Now we’re talkin’ wind. The difference of wind velocity between Force 6 and Force 7 is but a few miles per hour, but the linguistic jump between Strong Breeze and Near Gale makes no sense to me. For sailors on a ship running with the wind, I suppose the sensation of a Force 6 blow might feel breezy. When you’re landlocked, though, and facing into it with an armload of fast-dissipating hay, other words come to mind.
The scale was originally conceived to account for sustained winds on the open ocean, so maybe my high-altitude expectations are pushing the limits of its flexibility. Here in the central Rocky Mountains, the wind is often sustained, but mountainous terrain pushes it into variable and gusty behavior, with effects unevenly distributed. Our winds zither down ridges and roar over buttes; they whoosh through drainages and swirl into bowls. At the barn, which is sited in a sheltered depression, I feel the gentle fingers of a Force 2 on my face while the ponderosa pines uphill sway in the white-noise rush of a Force 4.
Such mismatches aside, I like how the Beaufort Scale invites me to contemplate the wind, not just resent it. I might wish it away, but that won’t do me any good. And what is the absence of wind, anyway? Stagnation. The ominous calm before the proverbial storm. Staleness. Calm air isn’t that common, but it’s also not a baseline condition. Force 0 on the Beaufort is one extreme on a relative scale, matched at the far end by Force 12: “Hurricane.”
More than anything else, it’s the scale’s fealty to local conditions that keeps me coming back. I think about how I would build another column, one for wind effects in mountainous terrain. Force 3, in that case, might be the stirring of air that cools a summer evening. Force 10 would be the overnight tempest that rolls the neighbor’s buck and rail fence.
Or how about a version calibrated by sound? Force 1 would be specified by the faint papery rustle of tall grass barely moving. A Force 2 blowing out of the east would be signaled by the fart-like brrrrtt of a car crossing the cattle guard on the paved road a couple miles away; if out of the west, that wind would bring us the barking of an unknown dog at an unspecified house off the gravel county road. We live among evergreen trees, and as the wind gets stronger, I would have to calculate how the psithurism of air flowing through pine needles at increasing speeds shrinks the aural neighborhood. By Force 7, though, all but the loudest outdoor noises would be drowned out by the roar in the trees.
There’s definitely room to expand the Beaufort Scale to include the interplay of wind and snow. Sculptural effects begin to occur at Force 3, I’d say, and snowment—drifted snow packed hard enough for a horse to walk on—forms around a Force 8.
Filling in snow effects is an exercise better suited to a winter day. For now, in April 2022, we are mired in “breezes” of various levels. By my count, there have been four days so far this month when the wind has not kicked up above at least 20 mph. Even though the temperatures are rising into the mid-50s, I’m still wearing my knit winter hat when I go out. It gets overwarm at times, but the wind doesn’t snatch it off my head. It stops my hair from thrashing my eyeballs and keeps the worst of the cursed wind—or is that my cursing of the wind?—out of my ears.