Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I've got a fire in my heart for you, California

Holy Jesus, friends. Your favorite Geochemist has had a fire in her heart and a fire in her backyard for the past few days, both of which appear to be all but extinguished. We will brush aside the topic of the former, but on the topic of the latter we will discuss today why the empty regions of Southern California are ablaze yet again.

If you’ve been living underground for the past week, you’ve missed the pseudo Apocalypse that has born down upon Southern California. FIRE SEASON. I grew up in Southern California and can remember years and years of yellow skies and soot dust and chapped lips and sneezing. Fire Season coincides with the appearance of the Santa Ana Winds, also known as The Winds That Drive Everybody Apeshit.

The picture above is a super-great illustration of how the Santa Anas form. We get a region of high air pressure building up in the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains. This air escapes the Great Basin via the Mohave Desert and continues on toward the ocean, following topographic lows like canyons and valleys (I’m looking at you, Los Angeles). The air is heated by adiabatic compression.

Adiabatic compression means that when you squeeze something, it heats up. You should be somewhat familiar with this if you’ve ever pumped up a bike or car tire. Even though you’re not heating the tire directly, pressurizing the gas inside increases the tire’s temperature. The diagram above illustrates this point with a Pressure vs. Volume plot which includes two isotherms (or lines of constant temperature). Any point that lives on an isotherm has the same temperature even if it has a different pressure and volume than a neighboring point. Adiabatic change means that you’re going to jump from one isotherm to another by changing your volume or pressure. Increase in volume and you decrease the pressure, so you’ll jump to a lower isotherm (cooling). Decrease the volume and you’ll increase the pressure, in which case you’ll move up to a higher isotherm (heating).

That’s why the Santa Ana Winds are so gosh darn hot and dry. Until next time, keep safe out there, gang.


Anonymous said...

You neglected to mention the fire in your pants...disappointing? VERY.

Ben said...

nice super furry animals reference