Confessions of a Cosmic Resonator
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today and save 20 percent.
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.
“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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.