What Is The Primary Cause Of Wind Speed?

Wind speed refers to the velocity or rate at which air moves horizontally past a given point. It is typically measured using an anemometer and reported in units like miles per hour, knots, or meters per second. Wind speed can vary significantly depending on a variety of factors.

Understanding what causes wind speed to increase or decrease is important for meteorologists, aviators, mariners, wind energy producers, and others who need to accurately predict wind conditions. Examining the primary weather factors that influence wind flow can provide insight into wind behavior.

Wind Direction

Wind direction is the starting point for understanding wind speed. It refers to the cardinal direction from which the wind originates. Winds are named for the direction they come from. For example, a north wind blows from the north to the south. Wind direction is determined by air pressure differences across a given area. Air flows from areas of high pressure to low pressure. The greater the pressure differential, the faster the wind speed. Large-scale pressure differentials drive synoptic scale winds like the trade winds, westerlies, and polar easterlies. More localized pressure differentials drive winds like sea breezes and mountain breezes. Changes in wind direction can indicate shifts in weather patterns. So analyzing wind direction provides key insights into the factors that influence wind speed.

Air Temperature

Differences in air temperature are one of the most significant causes of wind. When one area is heated more than another, the warm air expands and becomes less dense than the surrounding cooler air. This creates a pressure gradient, with higher pressure pushing into areas of lower pressure. The greater the temperature variation between two areas, the stronger the pressure gradient, and the faster the wind flows from high to low pressure zones. Typically, cool areas are areas of higher pressure while warm areas have lower pressure. Hot and cold air creating pressure differences is the reason winds generally flow from colder polar regions and oceans towards warmer tropical and continental areas.

Air temperature differences on both small and global scales drive major wind patterns. For example, land heats up and cools down more quickly than water. During the day, the air above land warms more than air above water, causing the lower pressure warmer air to rise over land and the higher pressure cooler air to rush in over the water. At night, the opposite occurs as the land cools faster, creating an offshore wind. The contrast in heating and cooling over huge continental land masses versus the oceans is a major driver of global wind circulation. The greater the temperature variation between land and sea, the stronger the winds. Localized temperature differences such as between mountains and valleys or between cities and rural areas also cause small-scale winds.

Air Pressure

Air pressure, or atmospheric pressure, plays a significant role in determining wind speed. High and low pressure systems drive wind flow as air moves from areas of high pressure to low pressure.

High pressure systems have heavier air that exerts greater force on the surface, while low pressure systems have lighter air that exerts less force. Air naturally flows from high to low pressure, creating wind in the process.

The greater the difference between two pressure systems, the faster the wind speed as air rushes to equalize the pressure imbalance. Large high pressure systems like the Bermuda High can generate strong sustained winds. Rapidly developing low pressure systems like hurricanes also produce high wind speeds due to the steep pressure gradient.

Conversely, when pressure systems are relatively balanced, the winds are lighter. So monitoring changes in air pressure can help meteorologists forecast wind conditions.


Moisture content in the air has a significant impact on wind speed. As water vapor is lighter than dry air, increased moisture content reduces the density of air. Less dense air exerts less drag force on the wind, allowing it to blow faster. Areas with higher relative humidity tend to experience higher wind speeds compared to dry areas, all else being equal.

Moisture also impacts wind through latent heat release. As water vapor condenses into clouds and precipitation, it releases energy in the form of heat. This added heat causes air to expand and rise, creating areas of lower pressure that draw in winds from high pressure areas. Therefore, the process of condensation and precipitation formation over moist areas can enhance wind speeds.

Additionally, the cooling of moisture-laden air as it rises causes density increases that accelerate the wind. The denser air starts sinking back down to the surface, gaining speed due to gravity. This creates gusty downdrafts and contributes to locally stronger winds where condensation is occurring.

In summary, increased atmospheric moisture leads to lower air density, latent heat release, and air density fluctuations – all of which can increase wind velocity. Monitoring moisture levels provides useful information for forecasting wind conditions.


anemometer measuring wind speed on a mountain peak
Altitude, or height above sea level, has a significant impact on wind speed. As altitude increases, the air density decreases. Less dense air produces less drag on moving air particles, allowing winds to travel faster with less resistance. This is why wind speeds tend to be higher at higher elevations and mountain peaks.

The decrease in air density with altitude follows the relationship described by the barometric formula. Essentially, the higher the altitude, the fewer air molecules available to exert drag forces on moving winds. For example, at 18,000 feet the air density is only around half that at sea level. This allows winds at jet cruising altitudes to travel upwards of 500 mph, whereas surface winds rarely exceed 150 mph.

Furthermore, mountains force air to rise in altitude as it flows over them. As this air gains altitude it expands, accelerates, and increases in speed. Strong ridge-top winds often form by this mechanism, which explains why mountaintops experience faster wind speeds. The altitude effect on wind speed is most pronounced near jet streams in the upper troposphere. Overall, the impact of lower air density makes altitude one of the key factors influencing wind velocity.

Surface Drag

The roughness of terrain has a major effect on wind speed near the ground surface. As wind travels over land, it has to move up and down hills, around buildings and trees, and over other obstructions. This surface drag slows the wind down and causes turbulence. The rougher the terrain, the more the wind gets slowed down. For example, wind speeds are generally slower in cities than over open water or flat plains. This is because buildings and trees create a lot of friction and turbulence for the moving air.

Conversely, wind speeds tend to be faster over smooth surfaces like ice sheets or oceans. With less surface drag, winds can pick up speed more easily. The sheer flatness allows air to glide quickly over the surface. Differences in surface drag help explain why wind speeds often increase offshore or atop mountains. The smooth surfaces reduce friction and turbulence, enabling wind to whip by unimpeded.

Coriolis Effect

The Coriolis effect refers to the apparent deflection of winds and ocean currents caused by Earth’s rotation. As Earth spins on its axis, it induces a force that causes winds and currents in the Northern Hemisphere to curve to the right, while those in the Southern Hemisphere curve to the left. This is due to the inertia caused by Earth’s rotation, resulting in moving air and water appearing to be deflected from their straight path when viewed relative to the surface.

The Coriolis effect has major impacts on wind circulation patterns like the jet stream and trade winds. It causes winds to spin in huge circles around areas of high and low pressure. This effect is weakest at the equator and strongest at the poles. The magnitude of the Coriolis effect also impacts the strength of tropical cyclones, making them spin clockwise north of the equator and counter-clockwise south of the equator. Overall, the Coriolis effect plays a substantial role in the large-scale motions of the atmosphere and ocean, making it an essential factor determining wind speeds and directions.

Jet Streams

Jet streams are fast flowing, narrow air currents in the atmospheres of some planets, including Earth. On Earth, the main jet streams are located near the altitude of the tropopause and are westerly winds (flowing west to east). This means they typically impact weather and wind patterns in the mid-latitudes (from around 30° to 60° latitude in both hemispheres).

The strong winds that comprise the jet stream are related to the energy balance between the atmospheric pressure at mid-latitudes and the atmospheric pressure in the polar regions. Essentially, the jet stream forms at the boundary of cool, dense polar air meeting warmer, less dense air from the mid-latitudes. This contrast in temperatures leads to higher air pressure and wind speeds.

The position of the jet stream often shifts north and south seasonally. But on any given day, a jet stream may pass over an area and cause a localized increase in wind speeds. The winds in the core of jet streams can exceed 200 mph, though speeds over North America usually range from 70 to 110 mph. Even outside the core, jet streams can boost wind speeds in nearby atmospheric zones.

Therefore, jet streams directly contribute to increased wind velocities via their own high-speed winds. Their indirect effects on pressure gradients and other weather factors also lead to windier conditions under parts of the jet stream. Tracking jet stream movements can help meteorologists forecast wind speeds.


As discussed, several factors contribute to the wind speed at any given place and time. The primary drivers of wind velocity are differences in air pressure, the Coriolis effect caused by Earth’s rotation, the drag over the surface, and the altitude. Air temperature variation and moisture content also play roles in wind speed. Large-scale wind patterns like the jet stream have a major influence as well.

More specifically, wind flows from areas of high pressure to low pressure. The greater the pressure difference, the stronger the winds. The Coriolis effect deflects winds to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and left in the Southern Hemisphere, impacting wind speed and direction. Friction with the ground surface slows winds down, so wind speed increases with altitude. Warmer air tends to rise, creating vertical and horizontal air movement. Water vapor transfers heat energy, indirectly affecting wind velocity. The jet stream generates fast river-like winds in the upper atmosphere.

In summary, variations in air pressure distribution, the Earth’s rotation, surface drag, altitude, temperature gradients, moisture content, and global wind patterns all contribute to determining wind speed.

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