Confessions of a Cosmic Resonator

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

Confessions of a Cosmic Resonator

Fie on sunspots! Damn those katabatic winds! I'm weather sensitive, and I'm just sick about it.
By Sallie Tisdale

"Plaguey twelvepenny weather," said Jonathan Swift, and I know just what he meant. We talk about the weather all the time, at least I do, in conversations divided between boast and complaint--sometimes both in the same breath. Weather is the biggest little thing in my world, everything and nothing at once, mundane, profound. The air around me, its constant, unrepeating contours, is the cosmos on my doorstep, in my cells.

I am what is known in certain circles as a weather-sensitive. Sorry, but I was born that way: meteortropic, positively in tune with climate wherever I go. My first thought when I wake up is about the day's weather, and I usually know what it will be while I'm still lying in bed with my eyes closed. I can tell if it's clear or overcast, warming up or doused in new snow, and there and then something of my day is set.

I grew up in an arid, mountainous part of the Northwest, a place of big blue skies, piney smells, and sudden storms. It's a world of hot, dry summers and cold, clear winters, and to me that's about as perfect as a climate can get. The days are bright, dramatic, with a bit of an edge. It's also a place where people like to appear unflappable--climate-controlled, as it were--and anyone bothered by a little ice or heat or gale-strength wind seems a bit of a weenie. Local businesses hang up signs reading, "It is forbidden to discuss weather in this office." Even now, when I visit, I am conscious of a certain lightening of spirit under that rough sky. But we live where we live for many reasons, and climate is only one.

Over many years I moved slowly north from the forests of childhood into the Willamette Valley. Western Oregon has unpredictable summers--gorgeously hot and dry one week, cool and wet the next--and the most reliably dank, dark winters I've ever seen. I have never adjusted to winter here, but I have gradually adopted the complicated local attitude. People here take perverse pride in lousy weather, make dire predictions for future bad weather during good weather, and cultivate a love for the pathetic fallacy, the notion that nature plans all this for our personal discomfort. It's a kind of regional megalomania. We think that it rains on all our parades out of malevolence. When it doesn't, we wonder aloud what's in store for tomorrow.

In fact there is much loveliness here; a good part of the year is beautiful and mild, and the contrastingly sober days are the reason for August's lush bounty. I am not surprised by the winters anymore, but I am a lover of light, and I dread them. Two years ago we had winter in July: During a month when there is often no rain at all, it rained 23 out of 24 days. On day 23--I was keeping a calendar; it was the only way to prove the weather was out to get me--I woke up in the morning, looked out the window, and in the next moment found myself pounding on the wall and crying, "Someone ought to do something about this!" But that was a crazy thought, so I dried my eyes, went into the closet, put on the same jeans and dull turtleneck I'd been wearing every day, and burst into tears again. Later that day I was complaining about being cold, and a friend said, "It's not as cold as you think." I started to cry once more. That afternoon, I announced I was moving.

A few days later, before I could muster the energy to pack, the clouds broke, the birds began to sing, and my bedroom filled with light. I went to the library and started looking for everything I could find on weather and reactions to it, turning up a mélange of science and philosophy and intimate obsessions, and thus began an amateur's study that I've pursued ever since.

In the basement of the medical library at Oregon Health Sciences University, my neighborhood medical school and research hospital, I found seventies-era pop psychology books and tepid texts on atmospheric science. I also found a strange multivolume work, several thousand pages long, which seemed to sum up the character of this odd discipline: The Patient and the Weather, the magnum opus of a fellow traveler named William Ferdinand Petersen, dead since 1950. Petersen was the consummate crackpot scientist, a zealot who was either way ahead of or way behind his times, depending on your point of view. He devoted the last 20-some years of his life to a collection of anecdotes, statistical minutiae, and page upon page of graphs and tables analyzing everything from nasal pH to leucocyte counts in relation to changes in the weather. "If ever there was an organism constructed to act as a resonator of cosmic events," he wrote, "it is the human body." William Ferdinand Petersen was someone I can appreciate. He was concerned with the invisible and ghostly elements of the air--passing fronts, falling barometric pressure, shifting wind direction. He had a feeling for weather's unseen power.

Petersen believed that nothing affects human health like the weather and that nothing in the weather affects human health like cold fronts. He called them "polar infall," a reference to the fact that major cold fronts on this continent consist largely of Arctic air. He believed that the continual change from warm front to cold front and back again is a major event for the body, a dangerous tonic at work around us all the time. Too few changes, and people grow sluggish and slow. Too many changes too suddenly, and the polar infall causes a "general or local spasm" in the human circulatory system, releasing toxic by-products and interfering with blood oxygenation and, in turn, worsening every conceivable human ill from schizophrenia to polio. And the only real cure for weather, according to Petersen, is different weather. The mountains where I was raised are an oasis of weather health, full of changing fronts but rarely violent or extreme. On the other hand, my current home in the Pacific Northwest is "a distinct focus for many diseases."

In the view of people like Petersen--and there are, I have found, a lot of people like Petersen--every strange thought I've entertained about the weather and my health, mental and otherwise, has some basis in fact. In their view we are all tiny creatures under an enormous umbrella of rapidly changing forces. We are cosmic resonators. One true believer suggests that weather-sensitive people like me should plan our lives according to the forecast, paying special attention to fronts. "Watch the TV weatherperson and listen closely when he or she explains the weather map," he writes. "On the day after the front moves in, try not to make important decisions at home and in the office."

I now have an excuse for everything.

And so I found the obscure science of biometeorology, which is also known by a variety of other names, including tomfoolery. Its adherents, and not coincidentally its detractors, include medical doctors, geographers, botanists, psychiatrists, atmospheric scientists, zoologists, and even a few meteorologists. There is an International Society of Biometeorology, and there are two professional publications, Progress in Biometeorology and the International Journal of Biometeorology, though both are hard to find in this country. Most of my increasingly thick file of bizarre findings and theories has been gleaned from tidbits here and there. In study after study, statistically significant relationships turn up between such things as bone density and temperature, the kind of odd and unexpected correlations a meteortrope can appreciate. For weeks on end I've read papers with such titles as "Outbreaks of Asthma Attack and Meteorological Parameters" and "Intraocular Pressure in Relation to Four Levels of Daily Geomagnetic and Extreme Yearly Solar Activity." I can't pretend to journalistic neutrality here. The fact that thousands of serious people are taking this seriously is enough to cheer me up a little.

Hungarian scientists, I read, have found an increase in dental periostitis with the passage of a warm front. Researchers in Japan noticed an increase in asthma attacks when the wind changes direction. The Russians thought to study whether changes in geomagnetic forces affect the anxiety levels of jet pilots. (The answer is, sort of--depends on the pilot.) According to some Swedish doctors, migraine headaches increase three days after a change in barometric pressure and temperature. I look out the window and see the typically annoying June skies of Portland--dull gray giving way to showers, blue sky breaking through for a moment in the midst of a squall and then disappearing--and feel strangely satisfied. So there, I think. If a wind from the south can stimulate asthma, it seems fair to assume that my aching left knee might be foretelling rain on occasion. Any number of experiments have shown that arthritics can predict storms. The Germans call it witterschmerz, weather pain. I call it painfully obvious.

This particular phenomenon is easy to explain. As humidity and temperature change, skin contracts and stretches. Corns and scars have a different texture than ordinary skin, and they respond at different rates, causing a variety of sensations. The same could be true of the various parts of an inflamed joint. How much is psychological and how much is pure physics, I don't know--but I often feel a flulike aching in my knee during rainy spells, when the cold damp is upon us. Yet many of the statistical correlations between a given weather pattern and a particular health condition--such as the documented correlation between the end of the 11-year sunspot cycle and a drop in human immunoglobulin levels--seem to have no mechanism at all. A statistical correlation is just that, nothing more; the fact that many are replicable all over the world over many years just makes them curiouser and curiouser.

Biometeorology as pursued in the United States is often camouflaged under other names. Call it sociology if it has to do with urban violence and heat waves, biochemistry if it discusses blood gases in relation to season. But even in disguise, American biometeorology has a peculiarly American focus on easily measured human responses to abnormal or extreme conditions. In Europe, however, where biometeorology began and has flourished, it's assumed that ordinary weather affects ordinary human beings in a myriad of ways. European and Asian scientists study questions that American researchers seem reluctant to ask out loud, such as whether the incidence of testicular torsion increases with sudden drops in temperature. That's a Japanese study--and yes, it does.

In fact, as American biometeorologist Dennis Driscoll points out, "The farther you go eastward, the more you find a belief in weather influence." Driscoll, a professor of meteorology at Texas A&M, has called European statistical studies "simply speculative" and in a recent lecture politely insisted that psychosomatic factors could account for such things as witterschmerz. "At the risk of a little oversimplification," he said, "those who think they are sick, or ought to be, probably are or will be! So anyone who has been exposed to the idea that ordinary weather may be harmful may convince himself of this and become ill." There's a word for that, too. A number of European countries, at one time or another, have had weather-health registries and hot lines. "Who should receive the weather warnings?" asked Bernhard de Rudder, a German physician and biometeorologist's biometeorologist, in 1952. "How should they be issued? Might they not provoke 'Witterungsneurose'?"

According to Driscoll, most scientists these days accept the idea that weather has some kind of influence on us. The controversy now, he says, is over whether ordinary weather has a measurable but insignificant effect or something more. "There's a whole body of circumstantial evidence to suggest that supposedly innocuous weather has an influence on our health," he says, "but I tend to fall on the insignificant side."

Now and then, some researchers show themselves to be a little uncomfortable with their own apparently oddball findings. Take the author of one recent study, who managed to express doubts even in the limited space of an abstract. His research, he wrote, showed "a remarkable statistical link between sunspot cycles and prevalence of hip fractures in the elderly." But he added that "the hypothesis of an 11-year cyclic variation of ultraviolet radiation as a cause of hip fractures is untenable." Nevertheless, there it is.

Plenty of scientists consider all these links untenable. Certain theories are more likely to evoke scorn than others--the role of solar activity leading the pack. Researchers have found links between sunspots and solar flares, which are known to influence rainfall and geomagnetic forces, and everything from heart attacks and epileptic seizures to growth hormone levels. A recent study showed an increase in intraocular pressure in healthy people during changing and stormy solar activity. When I mentioned this to Driscoll, his response was instantaneous: There's no "transfer mechanism" between solar activity and humans. But how long was it before we understood the transfer mechanism between ultraviolet radiation and melanin? We got sunburned a long time before we knew why. Humans don't need to understand or even perceive a "transfer mechanism" to be affected by it. After warning me again not to mistake statistical correlation for proof of cause and effect, Driscoll added, "On the other hand, these associations have been shown to be statistically significant so many times there has to be something going on."

The biggest problem in studying weather is weather itself. Weather is actually a little hard to define--it's the state of the atmosphere, of portions of the atmosphere, and of several characteristics of each portion at the same time. It is breathtakingly multidimensional and, to a casual observer, an apparently chaotic stew of vortices, coils, shifting forms, invisible collapsing towers that join and split without surcease. I find its complexity beautiful, mind-boggling, and scary. The structure of even one of its parts is more than I can grasp. Its dramas are enormous and microscopic, and they proceed inexorably whether I'm awake or not, aware or not. Even weather-sensitives like me are conscious only of weather's grossest, visible effects, which may have far less to do with our mental and physical health than a number of less credited forces, such as ions, pressure, and wind.

I have a particular dislike for wind. I love a breeze, a stout gale, a blowing storm, a squall, but strong, steady winds give me the willies; exposed to one for long, I begin to feel frail and childish--peckish. I want to be left alone, but I can't settle down and sooner or later find myself spoiling for a fight. I want to fight with the wind, of course, but I can't. It won't hold still. Winds such as those of the katabatic variety are famous all over the world for causing illness. A katabatic wind begins when air flows downward over a mountain region, getting warmer and drier and often faster as it falls. Such winds are so predictable that they have names: the foehn, autan, and mistral of Europe; the chinook, Washoe zephyr, and Santa Ana in the United States. They can reach speeds up to a hundred miles an hour and may be warm enough to melt entire regions of snow. These are the winds that dig their fingers into your skin and knot your hair and dirty the skies.

No transfer mechanism at all. How can wind make people sick? Might as well ask how a stressful job promotes heart disease: No one rightly knows. But biometeorologists in Russia found a sharp increase in stroke during the katabatic Afghan winds. In Italy and parts of eastern Europe, researchers noted an increase in heart attacks when a specific "southern" wind blows. Again and again, everything from violence to malaise to headaches is attributed to local winds with bad reputations. In the biomaterial world, certain forces are not visible to the human eye, not measurable by the human hand.

Me and Dr. Petersen, however, we're mostly interested in fronts. I've spent a fair amount of time watching television weatherpeople pointing cheerfully at the swirls on their big weather maps and chatting about fronts without any idea what they were talking about. Now I know: A front is the boundary between two masses of air of different temperatures and humidities as one moves in on the other. Warm air is lighter than cold air, and its passing means a drop in barometric pressure and often a rise in temperature and humidity. Lower pressure seems to make people feel irritable--and not just people: When the pressure drops before a storm, mosquitoes bite more, fish less. Research over several decades has shown warm fronts and low atmospheric pressure to be associated with such mishaps as industrial accidents, misbehavior in schools, lower test scores, and all manner of medical ailments, including heart attacks and bleeding ulcers. Shortly after he got hooked on weather, Petersen wrote to a colleague, "As you may have suspected I have gone crazy on the weather in the last two years but it is all due very simply to barometric fluctuations."

But before I knew anything about fronts, I knew this: I feel out of sorts when the barometer falls. I'm moodier on those clinging days when the air hangs still, when the world's breaths seem shallow. I snap at small things, cry easily, have less energy and more complaints. It's not discomfort; I'm actually more tolerant of a high temperature/humidity index than a lot of people I know. No, low pressure is a kind of global somatic insult. It feels as though the life has gone out of the day. When I was in the trough of a hurricane last summer, it was like the planet itself had come to a standstill, like it had stopped revolving. People were barely able to speak.

It was enough to make me think about going diving, longing for the subtly intoxicated sensation of several atmospheres' worth of water weight over my head. I like high pressure, and generally biometeorology likes it. High-pressure days are dynamic days, full of movement and animation, and the air, freshening steadily, moves across us with light fingers, in a massage.

I know a lot of people who sail through the boggy, gray western Oregon winter with cheer but wilt and moan when the temperature climbs and the clouds disappear. Earlier I spoke of my dread of winter. I spoke rather calmly, lightly, I think, considering that at not-infrequent intervals, all winter long, a kind of madness overwhelms me--a spitting, scratching, screaming fit I associate with medieval descriptions of people possessed. For my own sanity I spend a portion of every winter away from here, in subtropical climes, where I feel at home in ways surprisingly like the ways I feel at home here. And when spring arrives and my madness lifts, I take a breath of Oregon and remember what a blessing to the land the rain can be.

Some years ago a malady called seasonal affective disorder began to show up in the news. SAD--what a marvelous acronym--is the obvious explanation for my seasonal bouts with depression. Its apparent cause is the lateness of dawn in the winter, which causes circadian rhythms to drift. Several weeks of cloudy summer weather could cause it, too, explaining my dreadful "winter in July." SAD is usually treated with daily predawn exposure to bright light during the winter months.

Oregon Health Sciences University happens to have a major treatment clinic for SAD. I called its director, Al Lewy, to ask his opinion of biometeorology. Here, I thought, would be an American scientist who wouldn't laugh off the possible impact of weather on human life. Certainly I'd come to the right place; after all, Lewy pointed out, "I discovered SAD." But when I told him what I was working on, he said, "This is not biometeorology."

I asked again, in various ways, but Lewy repeatedly and persistently denied the relationship. The cause of SAD, he said, is "not really the weather." It's "not the climate," he said again, and even, despite the name, "not really seasonal." Uh, what would you call it? No other explanation.

Talking to Lewy reminded me of something I'd heard from another authority, Bill Lowry, a retired biometeorologist and the author of Weather and Life, when we were discussing the common dismissive attitude of American doctors toward his field: "How can you debunk something that's flat on its back?"

The sky is a canvas for our own aesthetic; we need weather for weather's sake. We need the constant background of change and unpredictability, and I think, too, that we need to feel the force of something so much greater than ourselves. If there is anything to biometeorology--and I'm watching that weather map every day--then it is Petersen's old cosmic resonance theory at work. Our bodies swim in an ocean of air, and like fish in the sea we can't know where we are. But our cells know. Each year in August, there comes that day when a unique, unmistakable perfume fills the air--the smell of a storm on the dust of late summer. And I feel a peculiarly free and dangerous feeling when the big drops start to fall. Maybe it's the barometer; maybe it's the ions; maybe it's the sunspot cycle or that goofy polar infall. All I know is, I'm six years old, in my underwear, barefoot, dancing wildly with my brother in a sudden storm.

Sallie Tisdale is an essayist whose work appears in several national magazines. She has written for Outside about endangered Hawaiian wildlife and diving in the Bahamas.

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