How the wind shapes Alberta: Stories and facts about winter's mighty gusts

·5 min read
How the wind shapes Alberta: Stories and facts about winter's mighty gusts

It's not out of the ordinary for it to be windy in southern Alberta. However, these days, it's been above average with gusts climbing to over 100 km/h.

All of this prompted some questions on Alberta@Noon about the province's windy reputation.

Kyle Brittain, Alberta bureau chief for The Weather Network, says he has felt its power many times, especially this year.

For example, on Tuesday, Brittain was on Nakiska Ridgetop, where he was blown over by the 193 km/h wind gusts, he says.

"I did not expect it to be that strong.… It looked like conditions were favourable," he said.

"Let me tell you, it swept me right off my feet and I did a little bit of a roll there. I was literally hugging the ground at times."

This particular spot, Brittain says, has hit over 200 km/h at least 50 times since recording started in 1994.

And because Albertans are used to some windy days, especially those living in the Pincher Creek area, it makes for some interesting history.

For example, Brittain says there are stretches of highway that are notorious for strong winds tipping over trucks.

Strong crosswinds occur south of Stavely on Highway 2 and south of Maycroft Road on Highway 22, stretching down to the Crowsnest Highway.

"Those two stretches are just infamous for trucks tipping over because they are really busy thoroughfares and strong crosswinds come across those roads," he said.

"So if the truck has got a light load or no load at all, they can go down."

"When you enter that area, there's a sign that literally will tell you, like, 'Here's the wind speed,'" he said.

Why is it so windy in Alberta?

Brittain says the main reason Alberta gets so much wind in the winter is due to the position of the jet stream over the region.

"Which can result in strong downslope winds along the lee of the Rockies. Both the steep east slopes, as well as large gaps in the mountain chain — such as Crowsnest Pass, that funnel winds through and accelerate them — result in strong winds to the east of the mountains," he said in an email to CBC News.

He adds that this also lends to the type of chinook conditions we see during this time of year.

"We basically can picture the wind coming across the mountains across southern B.C. and then suddenly dropping down that steep east slope in southern Alberta. And that can lead to very strong winds in the immediate reach of these Rocky Mountains," he said.

"So basically, the combination of steep slopes and those openings in the terrain is what gives us so much wind in southern Alberta in the winter."

How does this help renewable energy?

Tim Weis, a professor for mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, says roughly six per cent of Alberta's annual electricity comes from wind.

"So we're just above the average in Canada. On average, Canada is about just under six per cent, and it varies pretty widely from province to province," he said.

However, down in the States, some places quadruple that statistic for overall wind energy.

"When you look directly south of us, every single state from here to Texas has a higher percentage of wind [power]," he said.

"Texas has about 23 per cent of their annual power come from the wind. So Texas is a huge wind energy boom. In fact, there's more wind turbines in Texas than all of Canada combined."

He says Alberta's wind resources are still excellent and that there's lots of opportunities in store.

"We could definitely catch up to where a lot of our American cousins are at," he said.

"We obviously have more wind farms, but there might actually be less wind turbines in some cases because you can replace some of those old wind farms [that have] smaller machines with these new big guys."

He says that lots of wind-powered projects are being built in the next bit, and expects by 2023 the fleet will be twice the size of what it was a couple of years ago.

Winds connection to First Nations

Cowboy Smithx, a Blackfoot filmmaker from the Piikani and Kainai tribes of southern Alberta, says wind has always felt nostalgic to him.

"It's very comforting to me. I've got a very different relationship with the wind," he said.

"Growing up in southern Alberta, I went to school in Pincher Creek.… The wind was prominent. It dominated our daily lives. We had to basically, you know, adjust our schedules based on how windy it was going to be on a particular day."

He says he's learned from elders that the wind also dictated how seasonal changes would happen.

"When the chinook would come through and melt certain parts of the snow, the Blackfoot had drive lanes to push these buffalo into certain coulees where the snow was deeply drifted, where the buffalo would actually get trapped," he said.

"So that relationship with the wind, from the Blackfoot perspective, was deeply informing how we adapted to the seasons and came out of our winter camps."

He adds that a number of ancestors have wind attached to their name, which means there is some sort of story connected to their lineage.

Melanie Daniels from Wetaskiwin, Alta., says last year she was given her Cree name and that it means Old Lady Wind.

"I participated in a sweat ceremony and the ceremony host will, you know, they receive our name through spirit and through ancestors," she said.

"It definitely gave me a new perspective on the wind."

Daniels says that before, she found wind incredibly annoying, but now she tries to listen to it more.

"I've noticed that wind often means that something's changing. And I know I'm starting to become more in tune to those changes."

With files from Alberta@Noon.