A weather primer | Bleader

A weather primer

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  • stevenharris
Except for occasional weather.com checks in the morning, the only regular interactions I have with weather journalism are secondhand—my grandma reported to me on the phone on Saturday, for instance, about WGN's reporting on the flooding in Chicago. (That my grandma lives in upper Michigan doesn’t mean she’s not abreast of the meteorological situation throughout the midwest). So it’s been an unexpected pleasure—maybe really the only weather-related pleasure of the past week—to read, in the Reader and elsewhere, a bunch of interesting analyses of the biblical shit going down in Chicago recently.

The Reader’s Asher Klein weighed in early this month on the 60-80 mile-an-hour winds that blew through the city. All that wind across Lake Michigan, he wrote, caused a phenomenon called a seiche, a sloshing back and forth that sounds to me a bit like a tiny tsunami: in 1954, eight people drowned as the result of one.

A lot of folks compared last week’s heat wave to a far more vicious one that took place in 1995, documented in Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, during which one week of brutal heat killed 739 Chicagoans. (So far only a dozen deaths have been attributed to last week’s weather.) Harold Henderson reviewed the book in 2002, reporting on the social groups most likely to be affected:

Isolation of course doesn't directly cause heatstroke, dehydration, heat exhaustion, or renal failure. It works indirectly. Isolated people are likely to be unaware of how to stay alive in the heat, resistant to help when it's offered, and reluctant to follow advice that involves going outside—to a cooling center, for instance . . . Klinenberg goes on to ask what social factors cause merely living alone to turn into genuine social isolation. These factors include being black, being male, being afraid of violent attack, and living in neighborhoods where such a fear is realistic.

Childless people—or those not in contact with their children—are more likely to become isolated, which right away puts both men and African-Americans at greater risk. "Surveys consistently show," writes Klinenberg, "that a higher proportion of black elderly than white elderly have dead or incarcerated children, and that a higher proportion of men than women are estranged from their children."

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  • Michael Heidenreich
In a review of the same book for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell took a different tack. He looked at how electricity consumption rates soar when it’s hotter out—of course—and how more efficient AC units would’ve prevented widespread power failures, and so would have prevented deaths. Gladwell wrote the review in 2002, when Congress was debating stricter efficiency minimums for air-conditioning units.

And Reader pal (and former staffer) Whet Moser thought about Klinenberg’s work, too—particularly the author’s question, posed here in an article in Slate, “Why don’t Americans sweat over heat-wave deaths?” Moser writes:

One point that Klinenberg makes is that heat waves don't have eye-catching visuals, the kind that sear themselves into your brain. And they don't leave physical damage, the remnants of which linger after the disaster. Which is true enough, but in my anecdotal experience, heat waves themselves tend to be pretty well covered, at least in terms of raw attention being drawn to them before and during the heat. Instead, the subtle complexities of heat waves, I think, have a lot to do with why people, media, and governments don't always respond well to them.

Read the rest here; it’s well worth it, plus the piece concludes with Moser’s “completely nonscientific theory” on the matter:

People have an instinctual fear of random death. Opaque as heat wave mortality can be, it's really not very random. If you're young, healthy, work indoors, and don't take unusual risks, the chances of dying from the heat are almost nil. Whereas most other natural disasters can take you if you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Heat waves just don't tap into that instinctually morbid fascination.

And then there’s fog like the kind that blanketed the lakeshore last week, more opaque (ha ha) as a social phenomenon. Dmitry Samarov from a lovely 2010 blog post:

Fog came in and hid the skyscrapers just as the last of the graying milky daylight faded. The light from street lamps reached no more than a few feet in any direction before being subsumed by the murky cotton wadding that bound all forms to one another. Once familiar streets were transformed now into stage sets for gothic tales or slasher flicks. The change wasn't entirely unwelcome. It's not every day that the back of the hand changes into an inscrutable riddle.

No word yet on last weekend's rainstorms; I guess this'll have to do in the meantime:

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