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Wind Direction and Velocity

The direction of wind is usually indicated by a thin strip of wood, metal, or plastic (often in the shape of an arrow or a rooster) called a weather vane or weathercock (but more appropriately called a wind vane) that is free to rotate in a horizontal plane. When mounted on an elevated shaft or spire, the vane rotates under the influence of the wind such that its center of pressure rotates to leeward and the vane points into the wind.

Wind velocity is measured by means of an anemometer or radar. The oldest of these is the cup anemometer, an instrument with three or four small hollow metal hemispheres set so that they catch the wind and revolve about a vertical rod; an electrical device records the revolutions of the cups and thus the wind velocity. The pressure tube anemometer, used primarily in Commonwealth nations, is conceptually a Pitot tube mounted on a wind vane. As the wind blows across the tube, a pressure differential is created that can be mathematically related to wind speed. Doppler radar can be used to measure wind speed by shooting pulses of microwaves that are reflected off rain, dust, and other particles in the air, much like the radar guns used by the police to determine the speed of an automobile. Although the U.S. National Weather Service has estimated that tornado winds have reached a velocity of 500 mph (800 kph), the highest wind speeds ever documented, 318 mph (516 kph), were measured using Doppler radar during a tornado in Oklahoma in 1999.

The first successful attempt to standardize the nomenclature of winds of different velocities was the Beaufort scale, devised (c.1805) by Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort of the British navy. An adaptation of Beaufort's scale is used by the U.S. National Weather Service; it employs a scale ranging from 0 for calm to 12 for hurricane, each velocity range being identified by its effects on such things as trees, signs, and houses. Winds may also be classified according to their origin and movement, such as heliotropic winds, which include land and sea breezes, and cyclonic winds, which blow counterclockwise in low-pressure regions of the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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