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The D.C. area’s strongest wind gusts are increasing — it’s not your imagination

Last year had more big wind gusts than any other recent year. 2022 is off to a similar start, after gusts near 50 mph on Saturday.

Visitors hold an inverted umbrella during strong winds at the Washington Monument on Saturday. (Craig Hudson/Bloomberg)
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It might be calm out now, but Saturday’s storm delivered yet another windy wallop to the D.C. area. The month’s second wind advisory was issued, and winds gusted to around 50 mph. High winds have been pestering and persistent over the last few weeks.

Our analysis of wind data shows that the strongest gusts have become more frequent recently. Last year featured more big wind gusts than any recent year, a trend that has continued into this year. Wind advisories, issued by the National Weather Service when gusts are expected to top 45 mph, have also been on the increase since the mid-2000s.

Reasons for high winds in the D.C. region are many. The main drivers are intense low-pressure systems passing near the region and powerful Arctic cold fronts sweeping through in their wake. Climate change may also be increasing the chance of strong winds.

Climate change has increased humidity in D.C., making it feel even hotter

We’re in the midst of high-wind season

There’s nothing particularly unusual about it being windy this time of year. The peak of wind season in our region runs roughly from January through April. This is primarily because the jet stream — which powers storms and pushes chilly air masses south and east as Arctic fronts — is strongest during the winter months.

March is our windiest month, but wind statistics don’t vary a whole lot from January through April. For March, we might expect 11.6 days featuring gusts of 30 mph or more, 3.6 days with gusts of 40 mph or more, and 0.8 days with gusts of 50 mph or more.

For comparison, the typical September might bring 3.8 days with gusts of 30 mph or more, 0.6 days with gusts of 40 mph or more, and 0.2 days with gusts of 50 mph or more.

The warmer spring-to-summer months still feature bursts of strong-to-damaging winds, but the gusts are typically associated with thunderstorms and are highly localized. Overall, the frequency of strong wind gusts drops in the summer and fall before increasing again.

Tropical storms and hurricanes containing high-intensity winds are infrequent enough here not to really show up in our wind statistics, but they can disrupt a typically quieter September or October once in a while.

Blowing hard: The windiest time of year and other fun facts on wind

It has been notably windy lately

Last year was a high-end wind year. Washington experienced 10 days with wind gusts at or above 50 mph. That was higher than in any year back to at least 2006. Baltimore recorded nine such days, the most since at least 1997. Annually, Washington should expect five days with gusts of 50 mph or more.

So far, 2022 has also proved windy. Washington has had two days with winds gusting to 50 mph or more, including 52 mph during the late-season snowstorm on Saturday. There have also been five days with wind gusts in the 40-plus range. Washington averages 12 days a year with gusts of 40 mph or more, and already has seven in 2022.

Wind advisories have also been on the increase. In 2006, the trendline for average annual issuances was at 13. In 2021, it had risen to 18. The less frequent high-wind warnings, for winds gusting over 55 mph, do not show the same type of rise over time.

There were also historic windstorms here in March 2018; April 2016; February 2011, twice; and February 2010. Some of these were clear-sky wind events, with widespread gusts reaching into peak territory of 50 to 60-plus mph. During the worst of these events (March 2-3, 2018), power outages surpassed 750,000.

A mighty wind: Behind one of Washington’s worst-ever winter wind storms

Potential causes

Our days with intense windstorms almost always feature Arctic fronts or bomb cyclones.

Bomb cyclones are intense coastal storms or nor’easters characterized by an unusually rapid drop in pressure, over a large area. This accelerates air inward toward the storm core. High pressure encroaching on such storms increases the change in pressure with distance, typically generating D.C.'s strongest winds in their wake. Winds are driven by pressure changes.

Over the past year or two, with back-to-back La Niña winters, our windstorms often seemed to be related to a series of very strong fronts with wicked pressure rises just behind the front. Arctic fronts occur along the leading edge of an approaching Canadian high-pressure system. When isobars — lines of constant pressure — are packed tightly together, and move into the D.C. region rapidly, this leads to a strong pressure surge, generating powerful wind gusts.

This past weekend there was both a bomb cyclone and a strong cold front to help generate winds.

In Arctic fronts and retreating bomb cyclones, an additional impetus for strong wind is destabilization of the atmosphere — either by cold air moving in at high altitudes and/or surface warming by the sun. The unstable air begins to stir, mixing down blobs of faster-moving air a few thousand feet above the surface, adding to the gustiness.

This researcher helped coin the term ‘bomb cyclone.’ He did it to keep people safe.

A climate change connection?

It’s the subject for a longer article, but it’s reasonable to ask whether bomb cyclones are increasing with warmer ocean surface temperatures lurking off the Eastern Seaboard in the past few years. An example of anomalously warm waters persisting from this winter is shown below.

A number of studies have linked intensification of low-pressure systems to warm offshore waters — nor’easters extract heat from the upper ocean much in the way hurricanes do. It’s thus plausible that the warming offshore waters are strengthening our coastal storms.

We do, of course, need the right weather pattern, too, and some of the recent spurt of activity may also be related to the ongoing La Niña. La Niña winters tend to deliver more atmospheric waves than average, which increases the chance of offshore storm systems as well.