Meltemi: The Legendary Greek Wind

The volcanic island of Nea Kameni as seen from Oia

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The Meltemi winds of Greece, also known as the Etesian northern winds, blow from mid-May to mid-September and are dry, strong winds that come from the north Aegean Sea. They are the result of two pressure systems—one high over the Balkan/Hungary area, and one low over Turkey.

The name of this legendary Greek wind sounds romantic and oddly soothing. But the reality is that this dry wind blowing from the north can sweep across Greek waters swamping small craft, challenging ferries, and shutting down hydrofoils. It also can churn the waters, making them dangerous for swimmers, and blow sand at sunbathers on north-facing beaches.

These winds come from out of the Balkans and last for days. They usually cool down temperatures and can be a welcome relief in the hot days of July and August, but dealing with them directly can be a challenge.

Strong and Long

While the Meltemi is a regular afternoon phenomenon that most boaters adapt to, particularly strong Meltemi, which last for days can wreak havoc on Greek ferries, shipping, and pleasure boaters. Measurements of five or six on the Beaufort scale of wind strength are common, but these winds can suddenly turn into eight- or nine-point gales blowing for hours or even days.

While such strong winds are usually associated with storms and rain, Meltemi days look beautiful with clear, bright skies. But then take a glance at the churning waters offshore or peer down from the cliffs above the sea, and the chilling effects of these yearly winds can be seen.

Relief in Sight

Since these winds blow north to south, beaches on the southern sides of islands usually will be less windy. In some areas, mountains or nearby islands may focus the wind in unexpected ways, so this is not always a guarantee of better beach conditions.

Complications Ensue

The winds are also a problem for firefighters as they can drive fires very quickly over a long distance. The devastating fires that ripped across the southern coast of Crete above and around Plakias were driven by Meltemi winds, which reached nine on the Beaufort wind scale as the breezes were compressed going through high and narrow mountain passes.

History and Myth

The old name for the Meltemia was the Etesian winds. Mythologically, they are under the control of Boreas, the god of the North Winds, who can also stir up trouble in winter. The Meltemi winds had an effect on Greek history—supposedly Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, used his knowledge of the winds to time his naval operations, helping him to assure victory over less savvy opponents.

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