August 2010 has been a torrid month in Houston- it is winding down to become the hottest August on record. The high temperatures and humidity have made the days unusually uncomfortable with heat advisories being issued nearly daily. Two days ago the Houston Chronicle ran a mildly amusing editorial named The ugliest August. It described synapses melting in fearsome heat filled days.
Here in the depths of a Houston August, we sometimes suspect that the heat has melted our brain. So we run little tests. Sometimes we ask ourself poll questions like, "Is Barack Obama a Muslim?" If the answer is yes, and if we think that we learned that from the media, we walk very carefully, holding our head up straight, so those liquid neurons don't slosh out our ears.
Another little test we run is to read SciGuy's blog on the Chronicle's website. Eric Berger uses graphs and words like "correlation," and we feel smarter just looking at that stuff on our screen. If the heat had truly liquefied our lobes, wouldn't we be on TMZ reading about Mel Gibson's latest phone rant?
(Okay, so we were reading that. And we'd like to reach out to Mel, who's clearly a fellow sufferer of Melted Brain Syndrome. It's just that we're afraid he'd call back.)
Where were we? Oh, yeah. SciGuy. On Friday, he started his blog with the line, "It's been so hot this month that…" Our overheated synapses got all excited: Was SciGuy going to crack jokes? We braced for stuff that would knock 'em dead at the nanotech centers — "so hot that 'heat death of the universe' takes on a whole new meaning!" … or "so hot that climate-change skeptics could cook their numbers on the sidewalk!"
But no. Instead, SciGuy dazzled us with data. It's so hot, he wrote, that "this month is on pace to become the warmest month on record in Houston. Any month. Ever." It's so hot that the average monthly temperature of 88.3 degrees is a whopping eight-tenths of a degree warmer than any previous August on record. So hot that this August has already had two — two! — daily minimum temperatures of 83 degrees, a level of overnight misery achieved only once before in 110-plus years of records.
There's no respite, we realized. This vicious month is giving no quarter. There's no chance for a melted brain to cool down. Demoralized, we slumped in our chair, leaned back, and felt our neocortex dribble down our neck. At least it made our neck feel cooler.
So okay, it wasn't really even mildly funny after the first paragraph. But I was thankful that amidst all those numbers that SciGuy is throwing around, there is no mention of the heat index which is regularly reported on TV weather reports alhough not on the Chronicle's own weather page.
I have always been mystified by the concept of heat index and wind chill factor. While there is no dispute that higher humidity on a hot day makes us feel hotter and howling winds during chilling temperatures can cut like a knife on the skin, how can the meteorologists say "exactly" how hot or cold one is supposed to feel due to these indices? I need a light cardigan or a shawl on a clear and breezy 70 degree night. My husband feels comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt on 55 degree days. During his high school years my son played hours of tennis in July when the thermometer would regularly hover in the high 90s, often climbing to triple digits while I sat under a tree or an umbrella fanning myself, drinking copious amounts of iced water and wishing for the matches to end.
Who knows exactly how hot or cold a person feels? Perhaps 97 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity feel like 100 to me, 105 to my husband and merely 97 to my son, while the meteorologist confidently tells us that it should feel like 103. Measurements of weather phenomena have made tremendous advances but it would serve the public well if weather reports stay within the bounds of measurable parameters. Despite sophisticated instruments, predicting weather remains an inexact science. Having lived for a long time in tornado and hurricane prone regions of the country, I know this first hand. But rather than accept the fact that weather conditions are routine and for the most part, uneventful parts of our lives, the men and women reporting them on TV have become performers who are called upon to joke, scare and embellish. Instead of stating mere facts like the barometric pressure, the exact temperatures, relative humidity, wind velocities and the inches of snow and rainfall and occasionally issuing necessary warnings during severe weather, they must spice up the daily weather report by providing the measure of "feelings." I don't see the utility of the heat index and the wind chill factor and also why the weather segment of TV news has to adopt the sensationalist mode that has crept into all other forms of news reporting.