Over the course of this winter there have been several days when the temperature plummeted after the passage of an Arctic front as strong winds blew frigid air into parts of the United States. It can happen in other parts of the world, too. When this happens, the National Weather Service (NWS) often issues Wind Chill Warnings urging people to bundle up before they head outside into the dangerously cold weather. From time to time I am asked if plants also experience wind chill. This week let’s explore how wind does and does not affect plants.
What is wind chill?
The Oxford Dictionary defines wind chill as “the cooling effect of wind blowing on a surface”. That is partially correct as a general statement of how the wind makes you feel, but it is lacking as a scientific definition. A better one is “a quantity expressing the effective lowering of the air temperature caused by the wind, especially as affecting the rate of heat loss from an object or human body or as perceived by an exposed person.” The wind-chill index is a calculated index that tries to quantify how a strong wind can remove heat from a human or animal body. A low wind chill indicates that heat is being rapidly removed from the body, potentially resulting in the lowering of internal temperature and the chance of frostbite to extremities like fingers, toes, and noses if directly exposed to the frigid wind.
“Wind chill” is used by the NWS as a way to provide a warning message to people who might be working or playing outside to make sure they are well protected from direct contact with the wind. As a calculated index wind chill cannot be measured directly although there have been some lab experiments in temperature-controlled laboratories that have tried. The formula for calculating wind chill has been changed in the past as science has improved our understanding heat transfer by wind.
How does wind chill work?
When wind blows across a surface, it causes a transfer of energy between the wind, which is at one temperature, to or from the surface which is most likely at a different temperature. If the temperature of the wind is lower than the surface, then heat (which is just a measure of the energy of the molecules at the surface) is stripped from the surface and transferred to the wind. That lowers the energy of the surface and cools it off (note that this is different than evaporative cooling, which is cooling due to evaporation of water from a surface). The faster the wind blows, the quicker the energy is stripped away. In summer, when the ambient air temperature is high, this cooling effect from a breeze off a cooler water body like the ocean may feel pretty good. But in winter, when temperatures are already icy, it may cool off the surface (and by connection, the body beneath the surface) to dangerous levels resulting in frozen cells that are the hallmark of frostbite or hypothermia if the core body temperature is affected.
Plants do not generate internal heat and so are generally the same temperature as the air. Because of this, there is no transfer of heat energy between the air and the plants and so the plants would not experience “wind chill.” However, anything that has an internal source of energy, including humans, animals or running engines, could experience a chilling effect as heat is stripped away from the surface by the wind especially if the warm surface is exposed directly to the cold wind. That is why it is important to wear layers to provide protection from the wind when the wind chill is expected to be extreme since it keeps heat from being removed from the skin. Ranchers help protect their livestock in blizzards by creating wind breaks that reduce the wind speed and so limit the impacts of wind chill on their cattle. Newborn calves may be especially susceptible to wind chill on their ears and may be outfitted with earmuffs to protect them from frostbite.
What other impacts does wind have on plants?
Even though plants do not experience wind chill, that does not mean that there are no impacts from the wind. In addition to transferring heat, wind can also transfer moisture from the plant to the air, desiccating the plants if the humidity of the air is low. This can happen at any temperature as long as there is not much water vapor in the air, but we generally think of it happening at high temperatures because the difference between the water content of the plants is much higher than the water vapor in the air. The difference in humidity, like the difference in temperatures, leads to transfer of water out of the plant and into the air blowing over it. It’s not all bad, though–wind blowing through the plant canopy can be a good thing if it keeps humidity levels near the plant low enough to prevent the development of fungal diseases that thrive on very moist conditions, so gardeners should consider wind conditions in their garden when they determine where to place their plants and what to grow.
Winds can also cause damage to trees and garden plants. I recently read an article that indicated nearly all tree trunks break at the same wind speed of around 90 mph (42 m/s), regardless of species or size. According to the authors, “In a strong wind, a tree may break through one of three mechanisms. Uprooting can occur in rain-moistened ground, or if the tree’s roots are rotten. Alternatively, if the roots can hold, then it becomes the tree trunk that is at risk from breakage – either through torsion or, more commonly, bending.” Of course, damage to tree limbs can cause breakage at weak spots as well at lower wind speeds.
Wind also has beneficial impacts on plants. The gusty nature of wind causes variable forces on tree trunks and plant stems that increase their strength by forcing them to resist the wind. That is one reason why you might not want to stake young trees too tightly, because they need to be able to move in the wind to form strong tapered trunks. Wind that blows all the time in the same direction causes trees and plants to grow in distorted (and sometimes beautiful) ways as their shapes are formed by those constant winds. Wind also provides a way to spread pollen from one tree to another, helping to spread genetic material through a wide area for reproduction.
If you are interested in reading more about how wind affects gardens, check out my earlier blog post at https://gardenprofessors.com/who-has-seen-the-wind/.