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Imagine painting a baseball. That’s about how thick our atmosphere is compared to the earth. Even though the atmosphere is thin, near sea level there’s roughly a ton of air molecules over our heads. When you’re hanging over a field or watching the wind rustle the leaves on a tree, it strikes you that the air in our atmosphere is pretty wild. Most of the time we don’t think about air. We breathe it automatically, and we look right through it, unless were noticing clouds or smoke or the pasture coming towards us. Birds, blizzards, bats, thunder, planes, and parachutes all conduct their business in the atmosphere. Its a word from Greek that means “ball of air.” So weather is happening in a great big shell, and its not quite smooth. Its full of huge bumps and waves. All those hurricanes tornadoes, snow storms, and good kite days are powerful pileups of air.
Under the guidance of paleo-antropologist Donald Johanson, who unearthed “Lucy” 20 years before, the clan of our earliest ancestors continues to grow.
BIG ENERGY IN THIN AIR: THE HOW, WHAT, WHERE, AND WHY OF WIND
Most of the time we don’t think about air. We breathe it automatically (ahh), and we look right through it, unless we’re noticing clouds or smoke or the, pasture coming toward us (whoa!). Birds, blizzards, bats, thunder, planes, and parachutes all conduct their business in the atmosphere. It’s a word from Greek that means “ball of air.” So weather is happening in a great big shell, and it’s not quite smooth. It’s full of huge bumps and waves. All those hurricanes, tornadoes, show storms, and good kite days are powerful pile-ups of air.
Imagine a glass baking dish full of water, with one-half of the dish sitting on a stove burner and the other half on a hot potholder. When the burner is on, the water circulates. It rises over the burner and sinks over the potholder. The same thing happens on our planet. Energy from the sun makes the air at the equator rise. The sun is the burner; the ice caps and night are the potholder. Our air moves in huge circuits or Hadley ‘Cells; named for the scientist who first proposed them as the reason for trade winds.
Every hour of every day, almost 200 billion megawatt-hours of sunshine land on the earth-enough energy to power every city on Earth about 10,000 times over. That’s the energy that puts rainwater behind dams. It can make a lot of wind. It’s no wonder boats can easily sail any-where they like on the sea.
The only thing over the atmosphere is nothing-space. So the air sloshes and surges, forming enormous bulges and depressions. Air flows from the thick parts of the atmosphere to the thin parts. It moves downhill. Can you blame it? This big sloshing is what makes wind and weather.
Okay, heating and cooling of the atmosphere make wind, but what makes spinning storms? Where do all those swirling air masses and steady breezes get their direction? It’s not all north and south, for cryin’ out loud. Get a piece of paper or card stock (manila-folder material), and spin it around a thumbtack. Stick it to a cardboard box or kitchen table suitable for this kind of er … uh, “research.” If you have a phonograph record player, that’s better yet. Try drawing a straight line. You can’t. Straight motions curve on turning things. Let’s say you’re an air molecule and you’re moving in a big wino cell. Well, the earth is turning, so you end up moving in a curve. If there are enough molecules, we get a storm. The curving motion is called Coriolis motion. It’s named after the mathematician who first figured it out.
With all that energy coming here from the sun and all that energy in the earth’s spin, it’s no wonder sailors can see the world, kite strings can tug kids, and planes and parachutes turn into the wind to land. It’s energy from the sun. Take a deep breath and think it over. Wind is wild.