Cold

Frozen iceberg blue in color

On Tuesday I wrote about heat. Could cold be far behind? Again, I talked about the effects of cold in a recent blog on weather for writers. Today I want to look at cold in our lives, and it turns out to be remarkably parallel to heat!

 

Cold Snap 

cold snap (or cold spell) is distinguished by cooling of the air. (Big surprise!) Specifically, as used by the U.S. National Weather Service, a cold wave is a rapid fall in temperature within a 24-hour period requiring substantially increased protection to agriculture, industry, commerce, and social activities. The precise criterion for a cold wave is determined by the rate at which the temperature falls, and the minimum to which it falls. This minimum temperature is dependent on the geographical region and time of year. In the United States, a cold spell is defined as the national average high temperature dropping below 20 °F (−7 °C).

house capped in snow

In some places, extreme cold requires that fuel-powered machinery to be run continuously. Plumbing may need to be wrapped, and often water is run continuously through pipes. Energy conservation is difficult in a cold wave. It may be necessary to collect people (especially the homeless, poor, and elderly) in communal shelters. Hospitals prepare for people suffering frostbite and hypothermia; schools and other public buildings are often closed, sometimes converted into shelters.

 

Privately, people stock up on food, water, and other necessities when a cold wave is predicted. Some move to warmer places (think Florida’s snowbirds during the winter). Farmers stock forage for livestock, and livestock might be shipped from affected areas or even slaughtered. Smudge pots can prevents hard freezes on a farm or grove. Vulnerable crops may be sprayed with water that will paradoxically protect the plants by freezing and absorbing the cold from surrounding air.

 

Most people bundle and layer their cloths to go outside—or deal with a heating failure. They can also stock candles, matches, flashlights, and plan how to eat without a working cookstove.

Staying Alive

Once your body hits 82 degrees, you can become unconscious. Death can happen when your body temperature goes below 70. This can take less than an hour. Death can happen faster if you fall into freezing water.

shopper in frozen food or cold storage section of grocery

But cold can also help us stay alive: think frozen food, natural cold used in winter. And that’s even before refrigeration. Today, body temperatures are often lowered during surgeries to slow down metabolism.

Cold is often associated with snow, and snow can be insulation: hollowing out a snow cave or living in an igloo conserve body heat and protects occupants from the colder air outside.

cold survival Inuit-Igloo
Inuit constructing an igloo, November 26, 1924 (Frank E. Kleinschmidt [Public domain])

And After Death

Ice and freezing preserve food but also bodies. During the American Civil War, bodies awaiting transport home for burial were iced for preservation. But consider the human and animal remains that have been discovered in Antartica or other areas where they have remained largely unchanged, sometimes for hundreds of years.

Cold and Humidity

 

Again, paralleling heat, humidity intensify feelings of cold. It might seem paradoxical, but dry air will most times feel warmer than cold, humid air at the same temperature.  A cold day in the southeast U.S. feels colder than a cold day in the southwest.

I remember days in the North Country of New York when I couldn’t breathe without covering my mouth with a scarf, and the damp air frosted my eyelashes.

woman bundled against cold with scarf around face

My father used to say that he’d rather cold weather than hot because he could always put on enough clothes to get warm but couldn’t take off enough clothes to get cool.

 

QUESTION: how does your character cope with cold? Let me know in the comments.

Heat

heat causing leaves to droop
Heat has caused these leaves to droop
The weather has been so hot and rain so scarce that even the trees are suffering. I’ve been feeling the heat and—the ironically high humidity—and thinking about heat a lot. Herewith, my musings.

Some months ago I wrote about weather for writers, and so I won’t go into details of how peoples’ feelings and behavior are affected by heat. We all “know” (for example) that people are less energetic, more irritable and aggressive as the heat rises. Instead, I’m considering the role of heat in our daily lives.

thermometer weather writers

Heat Waves

We in Richmond are currently in a heatwave, as defined by several days over 90 degrees, often accompanied by high humidity.  Indeed, some say that heatwave occurs when the daily maximum temperature exceeds the average maximum temperature by 9 degrees F for five or more consecutive days. But there is no universal definition of a heatwave: it is defined based on heat relative to the usual weather, relative to the normal temperatures for the season. So, it varies by region and country. For example, Sweden defines a heat wave as at least 5 days in a row with a daily high exceeding 77 degrees F.

Global warming increases the likelihood of heat waves.

barren canyon with high heat

Staying Alive

First there is literally staying alive. It turns out, our cells start to die around 106 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, but people can survive much higher temperatures; a person could make a trip to Death Valley on one of the hottest days (131 degrees F) and as long as s/he stayed hydrated, would probably not die. So when a Richmonder says, “This heat is killing me,” it’s probably an exaggeration. Heat usually kills people in combination with other things: pre-existing vulnerability (e.g., very young, very old, ill), exertion, and dehydration.

dried beans in paper bags
And then there is food. Although people can and do eat raw, many foods—especially meat and fish—are much safer when cooked. But alongside cooking—and arguably even more important—is using heat to preserve food for later consumption. Native Americans, for example, have traditionally dried everything from jerky to leather-britches beans. Drying is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Beef jerky has been found in 2,000 year old tombs in China. As best I could determine, dried legumes are edible forever—though texture suffers and the older the bean, the longer the cooking time.
Mummy hall
Mummies on display (photo: frankjuarez [CC BY 2.0])

And After Death

The first thought that comes to mind is mummies—desiccated remains that simply look dried out. In fact, the mummies we’re most familiar with are bodies that were prepared to be mummies: internal organs removed, special spices, etc. But accidental mummies can happen when a body is exposed to heat, lack of air, and low humidity.

Heat and Humidity

The heat index combines the effects of heat and humidity. To put it simply, increasing either one makes you feel hotter. For example, with 40% humidity, a temperature of 100 degrees F feels like 109 degrees F. At 100% humidity, a temperature of 92 degrees F feels like 132 degrees F.

Heat and humidity, when high, contribute all sorts of ailments: heat stroke, edema (swelling), heat rash (prickly heat), dermatitis, bacterial infection, heat cramps, heat exhaustion (which might include diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, malaise, and myalgia.
heat causing a leaf to turn brown

Bottom line for writers

The effect of heat can be nearly anything you want it to be! And surviving the negative effects is often a matter of hydration.

Weather for Writers

weather writers
Recently I—along with my plants—have been suffering from the heat. They wilt and wither. I feel lethargic and grumpy. I’m not alone in this. From back in the day when I taught psychology, I’m well aware that weather affects mood and behavior. Indeed, hot summer months are associated with lower mood, and humidity tends to make people more tired and irritable.

 

And it occurs to me, writers might like to know the effects of weather that have been scientifically studied.
 
weather writers
 
SUNSHINE
 
Perhaps one of the best known effects is that people like sunshine—but only if you are able to get out in it. Otherwise, moods likely plummet for people stuck indoors.

 

Pleasant spring weather is associated with higher mood, better memory, and other good cognitive functions.

 

Drivers are more likely to pick up hitchhikers on sunny days than on cloudy days.

 

On sunny days people are more likely to help each other.

 

And Minnesotans tip more generously in restaurants when it’s sunny.

 

College applicants’ non-academic attributes are weighted more heavily on sunny days.

 

On sunny days, a woman is likely to give her phone number to an attractive stranger 22% of the time (compared to 14% of the time on cloudy days).

 

People spend more money when it’s sunny.

 

Being outside during pleasant weather can improve memory and boost creativity.

 

CLOUDS AND RAIN
On the good side, people recall up to seven times more objects when quizzed on cloudy days compared to sunny ones.

 

College applicants’ academic attributes are weighted more heavily on cloudy days. I love the title of this study: Clouds Make Nerds Look Good.

 

On the bad side, as noted above, hitchhikers fare worse on cloudy days.

 

On rainy days, people feel less satisfied with their lives.

 

Changes in barometric pressure can affect mood and cause headaches.

 

Rain can cause you to eat more, especially carbs.

 

Rain can cause pain. Because of the reduction in atmospheric pressure there is an increase in stiffness and a reduction in mobility. Yes, Granny’s knees predicting the weather is supported by science.

 

Some studies have found a relationship between low barometric pressure and suicide.

 

thermometer weather writers
TEMPERATURE
 
The ideal temperature for helping is 68 degrees F. The more the temperature goes above or below that, the lower the rates of helping.

 

Crime rates rise with temperature. During the summer, rates for serious violent crimes, household burglary, and household property damage are significantly higher.

 

Rates of aggression—everything from murders and riots to horn-honking—are higher in hotter years, months, days, and times of day.

 

Baseball pitchers are more likely to hit batters on hot days.

 

Journalists tend to use more negative words on hotter days.

 

Cold temperatures can lead to physical lethargy (much like too much heat).

 

weather writers
WINTER
Lack of sufficient sunshine in winter causes some people to become depressed, a syndrome known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It can be treated with light therapy. SAD is sometimes referred to as winter depression. It typically affects people from October through April.

 

Seasonal depression may be mediated by loss of vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin). People suffering anxiety and depression are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency, and seniors with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels.

 

Cold temperatures: see above.

 

weather writers
The effects of weather on mood are a combination of biological, psychological, and social. If you need to know why weather is causing your characters to act in specific ways, you can delve into that online!

 

weather writers

Making Weather Work For You

Making Weather Work for Writers

In my blog about writers on writing, I gave you Elmore Leonard’s first rule: Never start a book with the weather. His expansion on this said that unless you are writing about a character’s reaction to the weaker, keep any weather mentions minimal.

Advice to writers: any time you write about weather, ask yourself why. What is it contributing to the plot, tension, conflict, threat?
Combining this with insights touted at the recent James River Writers Conference, I offer this additional advice: whenever and whyever you write about weather, make it as extreme as is reasonable for the scene. Sometimes this can be done with word choice. For example, a cold wind vs. an icy wind, wet roads vs. roads awash. You get the idea.
Consider truly extreme weather. I have two favorite books about this. (Of course I do!) Both are by Barbara Tuffy and include info on natural disasters other than weather.
The Officer and Page book includes a very nice chapter on floods.
Tales of the Earth
Of course, you can also research extreme weather online. Advice: if you are writing about something you haven’t actually experienced—say a hurricane or a flash flood—searching online for videos of actual events is extremely helpful (pun intended).
Last but not least: consider weird weather. I just ordered a book by Joanne O’Sullivan titled Bizarre Weather. It purports to present true stories of such freakish events as showers of worms, watermelon snow, gory storms. Should be fun, could be inspirational!
Bizarre Weather