Chinook

The feature image is the familiar view of the chinook arch as seen from Big Hill Country.

THE CHINOOK – by Margaret Maw 

There is a mannerism peculiar to the people who live in Southern Alberta, which consists of a sudden jerk of the head as they scan the southwestern horizon. This is caused by a phobia called “Chinookitis,” and it’s very noticeable on a frosty day. These people don’t cringe into their coat collars, or frown at the icy road, for they are intent on detecting that lovely belt of sky-blue light which is the forerunner of a warm Chinook wind. 

A great deal of Alberta folklore centres around the Chinook. An Indian legend runs that Chinook was a beautiful maiden who wandered from the tribe, and was lost in the mountains of the southwest. The bravest warriors searched for her without avail, but one day a soft and gentle wind blew from the west. The Indians gazed at each other and whispered, “It is the breath of our beautiful Chinook.” The tales of the pioneers lack this poetic whimsy. For instance, one of them claims he was running a dog team into Calgary on a cold day. A chinook started to blow and while the lead dogs were plunging through deep snow, those behind were smothered in dust. Then there was a man who tied his team to a post sticking up; in came the  Chinook, and in the morning his horses were dangling from a church steeple!.   These tall tales illustrate in their own way, the rapidity with which cold and snow disappear in the path of a Chinook wind. 

These sudden warm winds which raise the temperature as much as fifty degrees in a few hours are not only peculiar to Alberta, they are also experienced in Greenland and Switzerland. The simplest explanation of a Chinook is that when a mass of warm air moves inland from the Pacific, it is forced upwards by the Rocky Mountains. Then as it drops downward towards the Alberta plains the pressure increases, since the air is denser at lower altitudes. Every one thousand feet the air descends, warms the temperature by 5.4 degrees, thus the temperature of air that is forced down ten thousand feet rises fifty-four degrees. 

Living in the banana belt isn’t always popular with the youngsters who like winter sports, and many older people blame their aches and pains on these sudden changes in temperature. Trees and shrubs too, suffer occasionally from too much June in January, but most people agree that it makes a pleasant break in the long winter season. 

The Chinook area in Alberta extends south beyond the United States border, runs north to Found Olds, and east to Medicine Hat. It’s a weather freak, a mixed blessing, but when the weather forecast is for a “warm, dry wind from the southwest” — when the sky lights up with an arch of heavenly blue, and the air becomes as spring, well – it’s pleasant weather! 

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