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2002 satellite image of dust stirred up by the Santa Ana winds, courtesy of JPL
2002 satellite image of dust stirred up by the Santa Ana winds, courtesy of JPL

What Are the Santa Ana Winds?

2002 satellite image of dust stirred up by the Santa Ana winds, courtesy of JPL
2002 satellite image of dust stirred up by the Santa Ana winds, courtesy of JPL

This year’s “fire season” in California started earlier than usual and is in full, devastating swing. As of mid May, the New York Times reports, the state “has already battled 1400 wildfires this year, twice the number they would respond to by this time most years.” Tens of thousands of acres of land have burned and tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. 

The National Weather Service says that a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and gusty Santa Ana winds have created perfect conditions for destructive and dangerous fires. 

What are these Santa Ana winds and why do they help create fire conditions?

Santa Anas are dry, warm (often hot) winds that blow westward through southern California toward the coast. They’re usually seasonal, and typically occur between October and March and peak in December. They originate when high pressure systems form over the high-elevation deserts of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. Air from the system flows clockwise, so winds on the southern side of the system push west towards the Pacific Ocean. 

The winds pass over the mountains between coastal California and the inland deserts. As they flow downslope, the air gets compressed and rises in temperature at a rate of almost 29 degrees per mile of descent. While air’s temperature rises, its relative humidity drops, commonly to less than 20 percent and sometimes to even less than 10 percent. The winds also increase dramatically in speed when they’re forced through narrow mountain passes and canyons. 

By the time the winds hit the coastal areas, they’re very dry, warm and moving fast. This is what makes them problematic. They dry out vegetation, making it better fuel for a fire—and once a fire starts, the winds fan the flames and help spread them. 

What’s in a name?

So, why are the winds called “Santa Ana winds?”

“While the origin and cause of the Santa Ana winds are not in dispute,” writes Robert Fovell, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA, “the origin of the name is.”

One fairly popular explanation is that the name comes from a Native American word, santana, which means “devil wind” and was corrupted into Santa Ana. But according to Fovell, the Los Angeles Times, and other sources, no one has found any words similar to santana with that definition in any of the native languages of the area. 

Another explanation is that the winds were named for Mexican politician and general Antonio López de Santa Anna, possibly in reference to dust storms kicked up by the cavalry he commanded. Santa Anna never operated in southern California, though, and spelled his name with two n’s. The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this etymology as having no foundation. 

In the early 1930s, an article in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings suggested that the name might have originated with early Spanish explorers, who had a “custom of naming places and events for the saint's day on which they happened or were discovered.” In this case, they might have noted the winds on St. Anne’s day and named them for her. This also seems unlikely to historians, though, because a few Santa Ana winds, experienced for the first time, probably wouldn’t have warranted naming—and the winds aren’t recorded with any name until much later, anyway. St. Anne’s feast day is also July 26, when a Santa Ana wind is unlikely. 

The most common and accepted etymology, says Fovell, is that the winds’ name simply derives from the Santa Ana canyon in Orange County.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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