What’s a Monsoon anyway? Hint: it’s not a Typhoon.

If you were like me, you probably thought a Monsoon is like a Typhoon which is like a hurricane. It’s not. It’s nothing like that.

The Monsoon is essentially what passes for a season in this part of the world. Rather than having cold or warm seasons (i.e. winter / summer), we have monsoons.

Monsoon: a seasonal prevailing wind in the region of South and Southeast Asia, blowing from the south-west between May and September and bringing rain (the wet monsoon ), or from the northeast between October and April (the dry monsoon ).

Why does it happen? Well, traditionally it can be explained by the fact that water has a higher heat capacity than land. In the summer, the Tibetan plateau and India are hotter than the water (water taking longer to heat up due to its higher heat capacity) and thus you get SW winds as wind blows up toward that landmass (warm air rises and cool air off the water flows in to fill its place).

In the winter, the water is warmer than the land (the land having cooled off faster than the water), and the wind flows the other direction (from the NE). It’s this same phenomenon that causes surfers to go surfing in the morning and not in the afternoon. At night, the land cools down, so you get offshore breezes which holds up the face of the wave. In the afternoon, the land has warmed up, and you get onshore breezes which break down the waves.

Unfortunately, the Southeast Asian Monsoon isn’t as simple as that. There are things like jetstreams and a shift in the inter-tropical convergence zone, that I’m not really going to get into in this blog, but you can rest assured that most of it boils down to things heating up in summer and cooling down in winter.

The thing is, the Monsoon was an incredible driving force of commerce in the region. It is essentially THE reason this area was (and still is) the trading hub of the world. Most early ships couldn’t sail into the wind, so imagine if there was a place where half the year, the wind would blow toward your trading partner, and the other half the year it would blow you home? How cool is that!? The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, Chinese, Indians all took advantage of this.

The phrase “trade” comes from the Middle English word “path” or “track”. The original use of the phrase “trade winds” was to describe the path you took following these prevailing winds. Only later did the term “trade” come to mean “buying and selling stuff”. The monsoonal winds are so crucial to commerce in this region that they literally named that commerce after the winds themselves.

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