by Erik Baard
Clouds sprinted across the sky, white fluffs of seeds cascaded across open fields, water rippled, and kayakers witnessed a dance of daring over Astoria as two seagulls engaged a red-tail hawk in a gyring duel (they won and drove it off). The invisible and central player in all this, of course, was the wind.
New York City is the windiest very large city in the United States, with average speeds of 12.2 miles per hour. Yes, that’s windier than Chicago. Despite the “Windy City” moniker of the Midwestern metropolis, speeds there average 10.3 miles per hour.
We pay attention to the wind when it threatens great destruction, speeding the spread of fires, knocking down trees and power lines, and sinking boats in squalls. Its daily work is less appreciated. When plants conquered the shores of Gondwanaland nearly 500 million years ago, they faced ultraviolet rays and desiccation, but the job of propagating spores got much easier. Palomar College biologist Wayne Armstrong has a superbly simple web page detailing the botanical world’s wind-harnessing evolutionary innovations to disperse seeds with packages that glide, parachute, helicopter, flutter, and roll. Many of these emergent designs have inspired the machines of humanity’s aeronautic adventures.
New York is swept by westerly winds, edging into the bottom of the 40-50 degrees latitudes, where are characterized by strong winds. In the southern hemisphere, the mirror region is known to sailors as the “Roaring Forties” or “Furious Forties” because few land masses obstruct the acceleration of whipping winds. If you’re a U.S. northeast or mid-Atlantic wind nut (hey, people geek out on the darndest things) and very brave, plan a weekend trip to scale Mount Washington, New Hampshire, where average wind speed tops the National Climatic Data Center’s charts at 35.4 miles per hour.
Indeed, if peak oil bears out in a worst-case scenario and modern transportation grinds to a standstill, a love-lorne European might yearn to sail home from New York City in the spirit of this poem from half a millennium ago:
Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!
But while we have jet engines and computers to calculate wind patterns, here are metaphorical flowers, the “wind roses” for New York City area airports. As you can see in this illustration from a National Center for Atmospheric Research journal article, the shaded areas all skew eastward, tracing the direction of the wind coming from the west. While jet stream tailwinds famously speed airplane flights (for North Americans on the eastern seaboard, flights going to Europe), at ground-level the wind a central factor in routing takeoffs and predicting fog banks.
No wonder energy prospectors see “clear gold” in the air in places like Texas, New York, and New England. Deregulation of the region’s electricity industry, added incentives, and rising fossil fuel prices have invigorated local wind power entrepreneurs. The reality of wind power’s promise is overtaking some creative concepts to promote it. One neat idea was to place turbines atop the Queensboro Bridge, though one possible problem could be the presence of a peregrine falcon nest there. That’s a large risk for what amounts to a gesture. I wrote for the Village Voice about a larger-scale proposal with even greater symbolic resonance was to include prayer wheels in wind turbines in the upper reaches of the Freedom Tower/One World Trade Center. Architect David Childs told me at a Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill anniversary that the abandonment of wind power in the new skyscraper was one of his greatest disappointments.
I can only hope he has since gotten back on the horse and renewed his fight for wind energy, or at least might enjoy a laugh from this video.