How has wind impacted human society in terms of climate or habitat creation?

16 August 2012

Above: Image © Teemu Maki, Wikimedia Commons


How has wind impacted human society in terms of helping the creation of specific climate and habitats? How much of it is due to wind or is the earth's position to the sun the ultimate cause of wind and its phenomenon?


It's difficult to imagine what Earth would be like without wind because wind occurs on every planet with an atmosphere. For example, all of the planets in our solar system experience wind with the exception of Mercury which lacks an atmosphere. So, to answer your question, let's first figure out what causes wind. The word "wind" refers to the movement of air over the surface of the Earth (or any other planet). This movement of air is caused by differences in atmospheric pressure across the surface of the Earth, which ultimately result from unequal heating of the Earth's surface. More specifically, parts of the Earth near the equator receive more energy from the Sun (and therefore more heat) than areas near the poles. Knowing that 'hot air rises,' you might expect warm air near the equator to rise allowing colder air from the poles to move in and take its place - wind (near the surface) might therefore blow from the poles to the equator. However, the situation is a bit more complicated because the rotation of the Earth 'deflects' moving air (to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere). In summary then, the ultimate cause of wind is the unequal heating of the Earth's surface by the Sun, but other factors including the Earth's rotation play an important role in creating the wind patterns that we experience. Now that we know what causes wind, let's move on to the other part of your question: how wind has impacted human society in terms of creating climates and habitats. Wind has a major impact on Earth's climate because wind distributes heat and moisture in whichever direction it blows. For example, heat can be distributed by wind in the air itself, or in ocean currents that are driven by wind (like the Gulf Stream). The distribution of heat and moisture over the Earth's surface (and therefore our entire climate system) would be very different if there were no wind. However, it's difficult to understand exactly how wind has impacted human society because Earth could only be windless if it lacked an atmosphere, in which case it would be inhospitable to humans! I should also mention that aside from the direct effect on our climate system mentioned above, wind also affects Earth's habitats through its role in erosion and the dispersal of many plants (think dandelions!).

Answered By: Patrick Barks


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