Williwaw, a Colloquial Word for Katabatic Wind

A williwaw is a windstorm that is created by gravity’s effects on cold air. This cold air has a very high density and as it’s pulled down by gravity the force creates a violent windstorm that can be devastating to those caught up in it.

A williwaw is also known as a katabatic wind in Alaska, where it happens quite frequently. Williwaws occur near the ocean and mountain ranges; the cold, dense air is pulled down off of the mountains towards the sea where it can stir up heavy winds and waves. You likely won’t hear the term williwaw in many weather’s lexicon, but you might hear the term katabatic wind.

Williwaws, or katabatic winds, aren’t just for cold places like Alaska. The Santa Ana winds that sweep over Southern California are also williwaws, albeit dry ones. The Santa Ana williwaw is created by dry, compressed air coming down off of the mountain ranges and hitting the sea. These winds are known to spread wildfires, which is a serious problem in dry areas such as California.

Other parts of the world use different words to describe this same phenomena of a mighty blast of wind coming off of the mountains to the sea. In Greenland they call it the piteraq, and in parts of Alaska a williwaw is also called an outflow wind or a squamish wind. Different locations experience williwaws in different ways but the occurrence remains essentially the same.

Early mariners and fisherman were likely the origins of this word, although it didn’t come into popular use until the 19th century. The location of the sea is the prime spot for experiencing a williwaw, although that experience can be terrifying, if not downright deadly.

Williwaw, a katabatic wind, in Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada.

Williwaw, a katabatic wind, in Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada.

Williwaws are interesting weather phenomena that have sparked interest in the meteorological field as well as in popular culture. Gore Vidal wrote a book called Williwaw in 1946, and Tom Bodett also wrote a novel called Williwaw! The popular Alaskan television show Deadliest Catch featured an episode where a boat was caught in a williwaw and nearly capsized.

This Army pilot struggles to make headway against one of the sudden gales common to the Aleutians. The photo, submitted by R. D. Thomas, of Renton, Wash., was taken by flash on infrared film. Photo: Popular Science, April 1946

This Army pilot struggles to make headway against one of the sudden gales common to the Aleutians. The photo, submitted by R. D. Thomas, of Renton, Wash., was taken by flash on infrared film. Photo: Popular Science, April 1946

High winds can create some rough weather conditions, both on land and off. Williwaws cause high winds that can send debris through the air at speed which can break windows, tear roofs apart, and cause other damage. On the water williwaws can cause unexpectedly large waves that can capsize or flood boats near the coast. Williwaws around the world can create mayhem but are also incredibly interesting weather phenomena.

See a williwaw in action:


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