When I was first getting serious about developing my outdoor skills, I became fascinated with how to observe wind in the physical environment.
The ability to identify wind patterns is extremely practical for sailing & weather prediction, as well as anyone who just wants to feel more in tune with their environment (wildlife trackers, birders, naturalists, hunters, etc).
So today, let’s walk-through a complete investigation of how to observe wind patterns:
The key to observing wind patterns starts with using your senses more effectively. By watching how the wind interacts with your physical surroundings, it’s possible to confidently measure wind speed & direction… as well as a host of more subtle characteristics.
This area of weather & outdoor study can be incredibly captivating and insightful when done properly. I’m constantly hearing from my nature mentoring students how much they love connecting with wind.
But wind patterns can also be incredibly difficult to understand without scientific instruments.
This is because wind is a bit of an amorphous thing, so people don’t always have concrete strategies they can use to open up this part of their awareness.
Before we get into specific techniques for identifying wind speed, direction, shapes & rhythms… let’s take a look at some common “Wind Illusions” you should be aware of.
Understanding “Wind Illusions”
A wind illusion is anything that makes wind appear differently on a small scale than it actually measures when you’re using accurate instruments.
Here’s an example of a wind illusion that’s extremely common:
Have you ever noticed that sometimes wind will be reported as coming from the north… but then when you actually get outside – it feels like it’s coming from all different directions?
This is caused by how the wind is being reflecting off your local surroundings, making it seem like the wind is constantly changing direction, when in actual fact it’s not.
It can be incredibly confusing!
Also… have you ever noticed that wind speed typically does not actually blow at a constant rate?
So when the weather man says the wind is blowing at 23 mph from the north… this might be technically correct, but it doesn’t capture any of the subtle nuances or timing of gusts that you’ll commonly encounter in real life situations.
If you’re a hunter in the forest, or if you’re just trying to predict the weather without relying on news reports… it’s important to not get confused by wind illusions.
These are just two examples of situations that you will probably encounter quite quickly when you set out to start observing the wind.
This is why we need reliable techniques for observing the actual qualities of wind.
Most people think about wind in a very one-dimensional way… but wind is totally NOT one-dimensional!
In a sheltered environment, it typically does NOT blow in a single direction at a constant rate & speed. It tends to be much more subtle and flowing, like waves on the ocean.
It has a particular shape & rhythm to it, that changes depending on the type of landscape and the particular conditions of that day.
So in this article, we’re gonna break through these wind illusions and really get to the heart of how to confidently observe wind patterns just by using your own sensory awareness.
Let’s get started!
How To Observe Wind Speed (Beaufort Scale)
The simplest way to observe wind speed is with the beaufort scale.
What is the beaufort scale?
It’s a way of looking at the basic observable characteristics of your environment like trees, branches, leaves, waves on the water, or how choppy the water is, and then relating those observations to a scale of intensity that corresponds with specific wind speeds.
The beaufort scale makes it possible to accurately predict current wind speed and gusts without using technical instruments.
This method is most often used by sailers & air pilots who need to know accurate measurements about wind in order to safely pilot their vessels.
But it really has a lot of practical value for anyone who studies wind effects or weather prediction.
There are 12 stages or levels of wind force. Each stage is associated with a particular wind speed and specific observations you can make about waves at sea, or trees on land.
The beaufort scale is public domain, so please feel free to share this information with anyone who might be interested. I created my own version with a few unique twists here that I hope will make it easier to apply.
I’ve included photos where possible.
Beaufort Level 0 – Calm
The first level of the beaufort scale is a completely calm environment. Here, the wind is basically non-existent. If you see smoke from a fire, it will rise straight up into the air. And if you’re near a body of water, it will be completely flat & smooth like glass.
Beaufort Level 1 – Light Air
The next stage of the beaufort scale is called “light air”. At this point it’s still difficult to tell if there’s really a breeze or not. The leaves are not rustling yet, but if you see smoke, it will be gently moving with the wind direction. Water has small ripples now, but it’s still quite minor, and you’re certainly not seeing any white caps yet.
Wavelet height: 4 inches or 10cm
Beaufort level 2 – Light Breeze
At this stage, wind can now be felt on your face. You’re aware that there is some wind activity. Tree leaves will be gently rustling, but the effect is still quite minor. Water will be covered with thousands of tiny wavelets (not quite full on waves yet). These wavelets are only a few inches high and the tops are smooth without crests.
Wavelet height: 8 Inches or 20 cm
Beaufort level 3 – Gentle Breeze
A gentle breeze is when the wind gets strong enough to not only rustle the leaves a bit, but actually cause small twigs to start moving. You’ll notice the actual branches themselves are still stationary, but the wind is definitely much more alive.
On water, you’ll notice wavelets are still increasing in size, making things appear overall quite choppy, and while it’s possible to see the occasional crests breaking, these are still not quite full-on waves yet.
Wavelet height: 2 ft or 60 cm
Beaufort level 4 – Moderate Breeze
When we hit the level of a moderate breeze, this is when the small branches of trees begin to move. You might notice dust or loose paper being blown around. Wavelets are finally combining together and forming numerous small waves with occasional white caps.
Wave height: 3.3 ft or 1 m
Beaufort Level 5 – Fresh Breeze
The next stage is what’s known as a fresh breeze. At this point, entire small trees and medium sized branches begin swaying with the wind.
On the ocean, you’ll notice waves are now easily observable. If you survey the entire water-scape, you’ll notice hundreds of white caps and for the first time, there’s a chance of seeing ocean spray at the breaks.
Wave height: 6.6 ft or 2 m
Beaufort Level 6 – Strong Breeze
With a strong breeze on land, we now have large tree branches in motion. The wind is so obvious that even people who aren’t actively studying wind patterns will comment on how windy it is. Empty garbage cans will get knocked over. You might notice whistling in telephone wires, and it will be difficult to use umbrellas.
At the ocean, white caps are becoming larger and more intense with definite signs of ocean spray.
Wave height: 9.9 ft or 3 m
Beaufort Level 7 – Near Gale
In near gale conditions, you’ll see entire trees in motion and it will become difficult to walk against the wind. On water, we have the first appearance of streaking lines of foam being blown across the water surface.
Wave height: 13.1 ft or 4 m
Beaufort Level 8 – Gale
In Gale force winds, twigs will break from trees and force of wind can have a significant effect on driving cars.
At this point, the streaks of foam on waves are becoming much longer and more prominent. There are fewer waves, but overall each wave is much larger in height and length. (I’ll share a story of what it’s like to stand in gale force winds later in the article…)
Wave height: 18 ft or 5.5 m
Beaufort Level 9 – Strong Gale
Strong gale force winds can cause structural damage to buildings, especially temporary or poorly reinforced structures. Entire branches will start falling off trees, and some small trees can be toppled over.
On open water, wave-crests will begin to topple & roll over which causes increasing levels of spray.
Wave height: 23 ft or 7 m
Beaufort Level 10 – Storm
Storm force winds will cause entire trees to break at the trunk or become uprooted. There can be a lot of damage to buildings as shingles and tiles get ripped off rooftops.
At this point, the ocean becomes increasingly frothy & white as streaks of foam becoming much more dense and spread out. There is a constant presence of foam being blown in the wind which affects visibility.
Wave height: 29.5 ft or 9 m
Beaufort Level 11 – Violent Storm
The wind force of violet storms can cause widespread damage to all types of buildings, especially rooftops. Trees & vegetation will be considerably effected and will definitely require cleanup when the storm passes.
Wave size continues increasing to the point where it can completely obscure small and medium sized ships. Ocean foam no longer appears in straight lines and instead spreads out like mats of white padding.
Wave height: 37.7 ft or 11.5 m
Beaufort Level 12 – Hurricane
Hurricane force winds will cause widespread destruction to buildings & trees, especially mobile homes, barns, & sheds. Sometimes windows will be broken.
The sea appears completely white with foam & spraying water, causing very bad visibility.
Mph: Greater than 72
Kph: Greater than 117
Knots: Greater than 64
Wave height: Greater than 46 ft or 14 m
How To Use The Beaufort Scale
For most people, just having an overall sense of how the beaufort scale works can be a major eye opener.
There are a few different versions of this scale you can find online if you want to go deeper. The best example I found was on Wikipedia because it includes photos of the ocean at all 12 stages.
For most people, it’s typically not necessary to memorize each individual level, but if you can get a sense of the overall continuum, it will definitely help you be more aware of the wind.
Just remember when you’re out exploring to ask yourself these questions:
- How much movement is happening in the trees?
- Is the movement isolated to just the leaves? Or are you seeing movement in the actual branches?
- Are you seeing entire trees in motion?
- Are you being physically blown around as you try to walk?
- Is your car being physically blown around as you drive?
- Is the water smooth & glassy?
- How choppy does the water look? Are you seeing thousands of tiny wavelets? Or actual waves?
- Are you seeing white caps where waves are breaking?
- Are you seeing any spray at the breaking points?
- Are you seeing long streaks of foam moving in lines with the wind?
And now you have everything you need to confidently observe the wind speed.
How To Observe Wind Direction
The easiest way to observe true wind direction is by looking at the clouds. Typically if the clouds are coming from the north, then it’s a north wind. If they’re coming from the west, it’s a west wind, etc.
This is important because clouds often tell a dramatically different story than what the feelings on your skin tell you… especially if you’re doing this in a place where there are lots of trees or physical obstructions.
Pay attention to this and you might be surprised by how often you feel the wind blowing from a completely opposite direction as the clouds.
Always go with what the clouds are telling you rather than what your skin is telling you… unless you’re a hunter, in which case the ground level wind does matter.
It’s also important to realize that sometimes you will notice clouds moving in multiple directions simultaneous.
For example – You might notice that the clouds lowest to the ground are moving in a completely different direction from the clouds higher up.
This is actually a sign that you’re currently inside the massive funnel of an entire weather system… think about that!
Clouds can be used to read the sky and predict upcoming weather, and overall gives you a deeper sense of being grounded in your place.
If there are multiple layers of clouds, make sure you check each one and compare.
If there are no clouds then you can still determine wind direction by feeling, but location is important.
The best place to feel the true wind direction is high up at a lookout point, or on the edge of a large body of water, or in an open flat grassland.
If it feels like the wind is steadily coming from the same direction, not swirling or changing directions every few minutes, then you probably are observing the true wind direction.
As you become more skilled at observing the simple characteristics of wind like speed and direction, there’s still a lot more we can learn from studying wind on a more subtle level.
The characteristics & shapes of wind can change quite dramatically in a closed off forest, compared to a wide open ocean.
For starters, have you ever noticed there are times when the wind blows in a straight direction, and other times when it seems to zig zag, or swirl around like a tornado?
Wind In A Straight Line
Once I stood on the edge of the atlantic ocean while there was a hurricane offshore.
I was on top of a big hill with nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see in the east. The wind was also coming from the east… And at this point it was hitting gale force levels.
I had come with a friend to watch the waves, which were supposed to be about 20 feet high.
The day was perfect. It was warm for November. The air was humid, but not raining.
The tropical breeze was so incredibly powerful, to the point where if you put your arms out, it would almost blow you over.
If you’ve never experienced this level of wind with full sensory awareness, I highly recommend it. The experience is so powerful that it can throw you into giddy laughter.
I remember standing on top of this hill, laughing our asses off at how much fun the wind was.
This is a great example of a wind that’s moving in a straight line.
Wind Spirals & Shapes
As the wind moves inland, it becomes more and more subject to local changes in topography, elevation, hot & cold spots, and the sheltering effects of trees.
In these conditions – rather than blowing in a completely straight line, the wind begins to curve and snake through the environment in a much more responsive and lifelike manner.
While these subtleties of wind don’t have much to do with large-scale weather prediction, they do make a big difference when it comes to things like finding shelter during storms or localized animal behavior.
You’ll notice during certain weather patterns, bird & animal activity will increase in certain types of forests, while decreasing activity in more exposed areas. This can even effect the hunting patterns of predators like hawks.
Here are some things to look for when you’re dealing with lots of trees and forest conditions:
- Look for places where the wind is bouncing or curving around thick vegetation
- Look for backdrafts that happen after gusts of wind are blocked or redirected
- Look for wind funnels or tunnels through openings in the trees, or along valley lines where changes in temperature or elevation are sucking wind uphill or downhill.
- Look for places where the wind is flowing consistently, and compare this to where the wind conditions are changing every couple minutes.
- Look for patterns in these different wind conditions that relate to wildlife activity, and consider how your own scent is being blown through the land if your goal is to see more animals.
Pay attention to both the feelings of wind hitting your body, as well as the local effects of wind on leaves, branches, dust, and always remember to check in with what the clouds are telling you too.
Now you might be wondering – what the heck is a wind rhythm?
Wind rhythms are simply a way to track the actual waves (or gusts) of wind as they flow through the environment.
Since wind on the landscape level moves in waves rather than straight lines, it’s possible to read the amplitude & modulation of these waves.
It’s kind of like tuning in with a radio. If you aren’t dialled onto a station it just sounds random.
But if you know how to turn the knob and tune into different frequencies, eventually something locks on and you realize there’s a station there.
Most people pay absolutely no attention to this because it’s so subtle.
Yet if you practice watching, listening & feeling these rhythms, there’s actually meaningful information that can be discerned.
Here’s How To Observe Wind Rhythms:
- Start by literally counting every single gust of wind.– Just keep track of the numbers in your head. You might notice that sometimes the gusts are really obvious. You might sit for 10 minutes and count 50 unique gusts of wind. While other times they might seemingly meld together as one constant flow. In this case, you might only count 10 gusts over a period of 10 minutes. It really doesn’t matter as long as you’re keeping track and able to perceive the difference.- Counting gusts of wind can be surprisingly challenging for many people because if you get distracted and lose count, you might miss the actual rhythm. You might find 5 minutes goes by and you’ve lost track of when the last gust was. This step essentially requires that you go into a meditative state because if you get distracted, you’ll miss-count.
- Next, begin paying attention to the length of time that each gust lasts for.– You don’t have to be super scientific here. We’re just looking for big, dramatic differences that can be easily observed as soon as you start looking.- For example: There’s a pretty obvious difference between a gust that lasts 10 seconds versus a gust that last 45 seconds. You don’t need to know the actual timing in order to tell that a 10 second gust is much shorter than a 45 second gust of wind. As long as you can feel some kind of difference in your body, that’s all you need.
- Keep watching for bigger and broader patterns.
– Often the most meaningful insights come after sitting and listening to the wind for longer periods of time.- For instance, you might notice that for the first 10 minutes, the wind gusts are really consistent, and they’re all about the same size. Then suddenly at the 10 minute mark, a big monster gust comes out of the trees & blows at a much higher intensity for 3 minutes straight. If you only observe for 2 minutes, then you’ll completely miss the larger pattern.
– Most of the big insights are found in the big patterns, so you don’t want to get stuck in the details.
With enough practice you can learn to predict upcoming weather patterns, or wildlife conditions by paying attention to the high level patterns in wind rhythms.
Here are some questions to guide your observation of wind rhythms:
- What changes can you observe in the wind rhythms during a light breeze vs strong breeze conditions?
- What changes can you observe in the wind rhythms during an east wind vs a west wind, etc?
- Can you identify consistencies to the wind rhythms with the approach of storms or fair weather patterns?
- Can you identify any common patterns to the wind rhythms that change according to different seasons?
These are tough questions that will require lots of observation time to build your confidence, but the overall process is incredibly fun and if you put in the work, I promise you’ll never experience wind the same way again 😉
Just get out there and start making some good observations!