The National Weather Service defines Santa Ana winds as "Strong down slope winds that blow through the mountain passes in southern California. These winds, which can easily exceed 40 miles per hour (18 m/s), are warm and dry and can severely exacerbate brush or forest fires, especially under drought conditions."
This map illustration shows a characteristic high-pressure area
centered over the Great Basin
, with the clockwise anticyclone
wind flow out of the high-pressure center giving rise to a Santa Ana wind event as the airmass flows through the passes and canyons of southern California, manifesting as a dry northeasterly wind.
The Santa Anas are katabatic winds—Greek for "flowing downhill", arising in higher altitudes and blowing down towards sea level. Santa Ana winds originate from high-pressure airmasses over the Great Basin and upper Mojave Desert. Any low-pressure area over the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California, can change the stability of the Great Basin High, causing a pressure gradient that turns the synoptic scale winds southward down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and into the Southern California region. Cool, dry air flows outward in a clockwise spiral from the high pressure center. This cool, dry airmass sweeps across the deserts of eastern California toward the coast, and encounters the towering Transverse Ranges, which separate coastal Southern California from the deserts. The airmass, flowing from high pressure in the Great Basin to a low pressure center off the coast, takes the path of least resistance by channeling through the mountain passes to the lower coastal elevations, as the low pressure area off the coast pulls the airmass offshore.
These passes include the Soledad Pass, the Cajon Pass, and the San Gorgonio Pass, all well known for exaggerating Santa Anas as they are funneled through. As the wind narrows and is compressed into the passes its velocity increases dramatically, often to near-gale force or above. At the same time, as the air descends from higher elevation to lower, it is heated adiabatically, warming about 5 °F for each 1,000 feet it descends (10 °C for each 1,000 m). As it warms, its capacity to hold moisture increases, so its relative humidity decreases. The air has already been dried by orographic lift before reaching the Great Basin, as well as by subsidence from the upper atmosphere, so this additional warming often causes relative humidity to fall below 10 percent. The end result is a strong, warm, and very dry wind blowing out of the bottom of mountain passes into the valleys and coastal plain.
During Santa Ana conditions it is typically hotter along the coast than in the deserts, with the Southern California coastal region reaching some of its highest annual temperatures in autumn rather than summer.
image showing the speed of the Santa Ana winds (m/s)
While the Santa Anas are katabatic, they are not Föhn winds. These result from precipitation on the windward side of a mountain range which releases latent heat into the atmosphere which is then warmer on the leeward side (e.g., the Chinook or the original Föhn).
If the Santa Anas are strong, the usual day-time sea breeze may not arise, or develop weak later in the day because the strong offshore desert winds oppose the on-shore sea breeze. At night, the Santa Ana Winds merge with the land breeze blowing from land to sea and strengthen because the inland desert cools more than the ocean due to differences in the heat capacity and because there is no competing sea breeze.
The Thomas Fire
and two other fires burn out of control near Ventura
in December 2017, with a strong Santa Ana wind driving the flames toward the coast and blowing the smoke offshore.
Santa Ana winds often bring the lowest relative humidities of the year to coastal Southern California. These low humidities, combined with the warm, compressionally-heated airmass, plus the high wind speeds, create critical fire weather conditions. The combination of wind, heat, and dryness accompanying the Santa Ana winds turns the chaparral into explosive fuel feeding the infamous wildfires for which the region is known. Wildfires fanned by Santa Ana winds burned 721,791 acres (2,920.98 km2) in two weeks during October 2003. and another 500,000 acres (2,000 km2) in the October 2007 California wildfires.
Although the winds often have a destructive nature, they have some benefits as well. They cause cold water to rise from below the surface layer of the ocean, bringing with it many nutrients that ultimately benefit local fisheries. As the winds blow over the ocean, sea surface temperatures drop about 4°C (7°F), indicating the upwelling. Chlorophyll concentrations in the surface water go from negligible, in the absence of winds, to very active at more than 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter in the presence of the winds.
Local maritime impacts
During the Santa Ana winds, large ocean waves can develop. These waves come from a northeasterly direction; toward the normally sheltered side of Catalina Island. Protected harbors such as Avalon and Two Harbors are normally sheltered and the waters within the harbors are very calm. In strong Santa Ana conditions, these harbors develop high surf and strong winds that can tear boats from their moorings and crash them onto the shore. During a Santa Ana, it is advised that boaters moor on the back side of the island to avoid the dangerous conditions of the front side.