Weatherman, Please Hold the Foehn!


Puffs of snow explode from wind-whipped fir trees and sparkle in a sunny valley. Propelled by the same gusts, pink clouds scud across an azure sky.

It’s a postcard-perfect February day in the Tirolean Alps--and Erika Jost couldn’t be more miserable. It’s not the flu, it’s the foehn--the infamous ill wind that Austrians love to hate.

“It gives me migraines. It exhausts me. It makes me feel crabby,” said Jost, massaging her temples behind the counter of her cafe. “It’s really awful. When the foehn starts to blow, I just cringe.”


She’s not alone. Across Austria, and in parts of Switzerland, Italy and Germany, when the foehn howls, people moan. The unusually warm, dry gusts--a touch of spring in the middle of winter--are blamed for tension headaches, backaches, hot flashes, nausea and sleepless nights.

Police notice a spike in traffic accidents and crime. Cattle and other animals become restless and won’t eat. Students get so distracted that schools in Innsbruck postpone exams, and Swiss researchers have documented a 20% rise in suicides.

In western Austria and parts of Switzerland, the foehn is recognized as a mitigating factor in criminal proceedings. The foehn defense won’t get charges dropped, but judges have issued lighter sentences in a few cases.

Scientists aren’t sure why the foehn makes so many people feel under the weather. But when it’s blowing, it’s the talk of Austria. Newspapers print front-page forecasts warning that the wind is likely to aggravate rheumatism or make scars hurt.

“Everything changes--even the light. The clouds look different. It’s eerie,” said Thomas Poppe, a German author who lives just outside Vienna and writes about natural phenomena. “People tend to feel very subdued.”

Hermann Hesse, the great Swiss writer, noticed. “There is nothing stranger than foehn fever, which robs one of sleep and provokes all the senses,” wrote the author of “Steppenwolf” and “Siddhartha.”

Meteorologists call a wind a foehn (pronounced “fern”) when it blows warm and dry from the south, compressing the air as it sweeps down the slopes.

The Alpine foehn, which originates in the Sahara, is a cousin of the Santa Ana winds that fan fires in Southern California, the Chinook winds that rage across the Rockies, and the dreaded mistral known for fouling French tempers.

Although April is the cruelest month for foehn winds, they can occur year-round. In winter they melt snow and raise the risk of avalanches.

A blast of warm, dry air in midwinter might sound pleasant, but the Vienna-based Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics likens the foehn to standing up in a convertible while zipping down a highway in July: It might feel good for a few seconds, but no longer.

Temperatures can soar from freezing to 60 degrees in as little as two hours, and gusts have been clocked at 100 mph, enough to rip off roofs and topple trees, said foehn expert Patrick Haechler, senior forecaster at the Swiss national weather service.

He suspects that tiny changes in atmospheric pressure might explain the lousy moods, though he’s skeptical.

“It can be an excuse to have a bad day,” Haechler said. “There does seems to be a link between human feeling and the foehn. It’s just that, scientifically, it’s very difficult to document or explain.”

But sufferers say they know a foehn when they feel it. More than one in three people surveyed in January by Germany’s Allensbach Institute said foehn-like weather noticeably affected their health, and nearly one in five reported a strong influence. The telephone survey of 1,000 people gave no margin of error.

Jost, the cafe owner, said she won’t drive in Innsbruck when the foehn is blowing “because there are so many accidents. People don’t seem to pay attention to where they’re going.”

The foehn isn’t all bad. It can give farmers a longer crop-growing season and can even save lives, as five Californians discovered when they were lost in the Alps two winters ago and a sudden foehn saved them from freezing.

And not everyone feels the foehn the same: It gives a lucky few an adrenaline rush.

“One extreme is the headache and exhaustion,” said Poppe, the author. “The other is ‘Aah, great!’ the way you feel when you drink a glass of champagne.”