How windy is Wellington, really?

Revealed: the windiest spots in town

TOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 10:15 09/12/2011
Welly sign
SIGN ON: The Wellington Blown Away sign.

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We have the reputation, and soon we'll have the sign, but is Wellington really the world's wind capital? Tom Fitzsimons reports.


WINDY CAPITAL

248km/h  The highest gust of wind ever recorded in Wellington
29km/h  The average wind speed at Wellington Airport; 18km/h  Chicago's average wind speed
104km/h  The highest gust at Wellington Airport this spring, on November 28th
233  The number of days winds topped gale-force speed in Wellington's windiest year.


We have the reputation, and soon we'll have the sign, but is Wellington really the world's wind capital? Tom Fitzsimons reports.

Spring. A time for blossom on the trees, new growth, hope.

Except, of course, in Wellington, where it's a time for wind.

Here the November northerly screams through the city, whipping powerlines around, spinning rubbish bins down streets, and even tossing pedestrians over on their way to work.

Wellington is celebrating its gusty reputation afresh with the ''Wellington  Blown Away'' sign set for the hill beside the Miramar cutting. (Boasting of our dubious weather having replaced boasting about the film industry in the ill-fated original ''Wellywood'' idea.)


How windy is your street? Click here for an interactive graphic displaying the capital's wind zones. When using the graphic, click on your street to see what wind zone you are in.

KEY FOR GRAPHIC
Wellington City Council divides the city into five degrees of windiness:
1 = low wind
2 = medium wind
3 = high wind
4 = very high wind
5 = winds reach speeds above 50m/s; extra conditions required for building consents


So how deserved is all the ''Windy Wellington'' notoriety? And who cops the worst of it around town?

First, while we're not, strictly speaking, the windiest place on record in the country  that honour belongs to Canterbury's Mt John, with a 1970 wind gust of 250km/h  we're not far off, with recordings of 248km/h gusts in both 1959 and 1962.

Those kinds of freak speeds, recorded on Hawkins Hill near Brooklyn, are easily in hurricane territory.
"You couldn't stand up there,'' says Niwa principal scientist Brett Mullan. ''It's way above comfortable for walking."

The infamous Wahine storm of 1968 saw gusts upwards of 200km/h, while over the hill in the Wairarapa, windswept Castlepoint and Cape Palliser have seen peak gusts in the same territory.

And Wellington is much more consistently windy than most places, seeing gusts exceeding gale-force (75km/h) about 175 days every year at the airport, Mullan says.

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Auckland's winds, by contrast, get over over 65km/h on only about 50 days of the year, while Christchurch averages 60 such days and Invercargill 90.

What's more, even though other cities around the world like to lay claim to extreme winds, it seems they've got nothing on Wellington.

Metservice meteorologist Daniel Corbett says lakeside Chicago has an average wind-speed of about 18km/h, where Wellington Airport's is 29km/h.

"In America, they call it the windy city. 18km! So Americans are probably full of hot air or something."

Victoria University school of architecture senior lecturer Michael Donn agrees. When he investigated Wellington's relative windiness recently, he couldn't find anywhere else  anywhere with a city, at least  that compared.

"Auckland is windier than Chicago and of course Wellington is much windier than Auckland. It turns out that we're a windy country. We just happen to be at the windiest part of it."

Cook Strait and the mountainous landscape on either side of it are to blame for the constancy of the wind. It has to go either over or around those mountains, Niwa's Mullan says. 'Around' is often the easiest option.

"So it's just like squeezing through a funnel and it speeds up as it goes through."

As for the worst spots to be, Wellington City Council's most recent data divides the city into five levels of windiness.

At the peak end of the scale are zones including the hilly parts of the Miramar peninsula; much of Roseneath, Hataitai and Mt Victoria; the stretch from Owhiro Bay through Happy Valley up to Brooklyn; and pockets of Newlands, Johnsonville and Grenada North.

"Certainly any exposed ridge in the Wellington region has major wind gusts," says Victoria's Donn. "You'd probably have to say the windiest occupied place in Wellington would have to be the top of Mt Victoria. If you want to take yourself up a few hundred metres into much higher wind speeds that flow at much higher levels, then good luck to you."

Wellington writer Miraz Jordan lives about 30 metres from the summit of Mt Victoria, near Alexandra Rd. Luckily a row of pine trees blocks off most northerly gales, but she gets the southerly full-on  and has to scramble to pull washing and deckchairs inside before they scatter all over her property.

The trees have a downside too. After one massive pine toppled over earlier this year a stone's throw from the house, she's slightly worried more might follow suit.

"We routinely see big branches fall off, and there's plenty of smaller branches that come down in any decent wind."

It's not just suburban areas that have to deal with high winds. Winds on the city's streets can whip above 23 metres/second  a speed the city council's wind design guidelines labels "totally unsuitable for walking".

To mitigate such conditions, Donn has helped Wellington develop serious building rules around wind over the past 25 years.

It's made a difference in the central city, he says. People sit and eat outside in some spots now where once that was preposterous. Ropes were once necessary on an intersection like Taranaki St and Courtenay Place, but changes to nearby buildings have improved the area.

That said, not everywhere's got better. The Featherston St-Stout St intersection, where a woman was filmed falling over in a gale earlier this year, has got worse.

Not everyone hates the wind, of course. Keen windsurfer Danny McPhee says there's no shortage of times or places that are suitable for the sport in Wellington.

"It's pretty much the windiest city in the world, as far as strength of wind and average amount of days go."

Spring is the best time of year for windsurfing, but any week will generally offer up to three or four good days, he says. And while the wind might turn some people off from Wellington, it's attractive to others.

"We have people moving from overseas for that simple reason. I mean, a) it's a cool city, b) it's windy, and it allows them to get out and sail."

Finally, if the winds these past few months have been enough to make you go spare, settle down. Wind speeds through October, November and the early part of December this year were actually slightly below the average.

And we haven't had anything like the one excruciating Wellington October where the city saw 30 days of winds surpassing gale force. Now that would be enough to blow you away.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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