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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac: Chinook Wind

Air Date: Week of

This week, facts about a Chinook Wind that swept through a South Dakota town, causing the fastest temperature change in history.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Residents of the town of Spearfish, South Dakota, woke up to a thermal surprise on the morning of January 22nd, 1943. That's the day the temperature in Spearfish rocketed up 49 degrees in just two minutes. At seven-thirty in the morning it was a bitterly cold minus four degrees, but by 7:32 it had jumped to a relatively balmy 45. The phenomenon is still in the weather record books as the fastest temperature change ever recorded.

The cause of this fast warm-up was something called the Chinook Wind. "Chinook" means "snow eater" in the language of some Native Americans, and the warm, dry wind certainly does eat up snow cover. Chinooks happen when warm air pours down a mountainside, and in Spearfish, the dramatic Chinook came up over the Black Hills. Unique air currents caused wind from one side of the hills to heat up drastically as it descended into the cold air mass on the other side of the hill. Despite respite from the cold, Chinook winds can create problems, though. The hot, dry air has been known to start wild fires, and damage plants. Similar winds in the Alps have caused deadly avalanches. And the Chinooks can be cruelly unpredictable.

In Spearfish in 1943, the pleasant weather lasted only an hour, before the temperature dropped back to minus five degrees in less than 30 minutes. Car windshields cracked, and cattle and people alike were stunned, as the season seemed to change from winter to spring and back again, all before lunch. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Chet Atkins, "Windy and Warm" (acoustic)]



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