Changing Seasons and Health

Maybe you love the return of the flowers and leaves in spring. Or maybe you enjoy the changing colors of the trees in autumn. Some people love all the outdoor activities they can do in the summer, while others prefer skiing and skating in winter. Whatever reason you have for your favorite season, people usually do prefer one over the others. What causes the seasons? And what are the effects of the seasons on health? Are there healthier seasons? Does the season of one’s birth affect their later health?

The Earth is tilted as it revolves around the sun. As a result, there are times when the Northern Hemisphere faces the sun more directly, and other times when the Southern Hemisphere is more directly in line with the sun. These differences cause the seasons, and are the reason why July is the hottest month in most of the Northern Hemisphere (when it faces the sun), but is the middle of winter south of the equator (pointed away from the sun).


On my Facebook page, I recently conducted a very unscientific survey of the seasonal preferences of friends and family. While the results were fairly mixed, overall there was a preference for autumn. However, recent larger surveys of Americans tend to affirm that the temperate seasons of fall and spring are favored, with a YouGov survey in 2013 showing fall as the favorite of more people, and a Gallup survey in 2015 showing spring as the favorite of the most people. Could the month of one’s birth have an impact on seasonal preference? While most report that their preferred season has the weather they enjoy most, this can differ from region to region. If you are from Florida, you might prefer winter, because a Florida winter is more temperate and most like spring or fall in the rest of the country.

Some scientific research shows that the season in which one is born might make a person more likely to be prone to mental illness. A study conducted at Vanderbilt University in 2010 demonstrated the so-called “imprinting effect”, at least in mice, in which the daylight one is exposed to during the early months of life has a lasting impact on the brain. This may help explain the greater levels of schizophrenia, depression and seasonal affective disorder in those born in winter. Conversely, babies born in May through June seem to be somewhat healthier overall.

Illness tends to rise during the autumn and winter months. In many cases, this is due to children returning to school and sharing germs with each other in close quarters, and then bringing those viruses back to home to families, who are spending more time indoors during the colder months. The drier indoor air during this time also makes people more susceptible to cold viruses. Flu tends to peak in winter as well for the same reasons. Regardless of the season, doctors insist that the best way to stay free of viruses is through regular hand washing, a good regimen of diet and exercise, and getting enough restorative sleep every night (usually 7-8 hours for most people).

And perhaps the sun itself plays a role in seasonal preference and health. Many people are deficient in vitamin D. The deficiency can cause a number of health problems, including muscle pain and fatigue, and may even play a role in multiple sclerosis and cancer. The easiest and most common way to increase vitamin D in the blood is through sun exposure. The body converts sunlight to vitamin D, which is then used for healthy muscle and bone. The active spring and summer months expose people to sunlight making these deficiencies decrease in summer and fall.

Whatever your favorite season might be, enjoy it!

US Hurricane Relief

No electrical power for light, air conditioning, refrigeration, and other daily needs. Fresh water is scarce. People are scrounging to find food and fuel. This is not the scene of some apocalyptic movie or a description of a developing country. This is happening in the United States, right now, in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And there are still areas without power in Florida as well. Additionally, the recovery from flooding in the Houston area is continuing and it will take months or longer to fully rebuild the damaged areas.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have caused incredible devastation. Maria is actually still active and may threaten the US east coast this week. The death toll from these three storms is over 200, and countless others have lost their homes and have had their lives totally disrupted. These hurricanes have created health and humanitarian disasters right within our borders, and the people affected are in need of help.

Although many people need goods that were lost, at this point, money is most in need so that organizations in the areas can operate at full strength. Goods also cost money to ship, an issue that is even more difficult in Puerto Rico due to the Jones Act which requires American ships to deliver supplies.

What are some ways you can help? There are some well known international charities, but I’ve chosen 5 below that are ready to help right now and that you might not know about.

  1. ASPCA: Animals are often forgotten when natural disasters strike, but are often just as in need of assistance.
  2. United for Puerto Rico: This charity was recently established by the First Lady of Puerto Rico and already has many established sponsors working on the ground there to provide aid and support.
  3. US Virgin Islands Recovery: Many people are unaware of, or have quickly forgotten, the damage done to the US Virgin Islands by Irma and Maria. This charity is focusing its efforts there.
  4. Direct Relief: Direct Relief is a non-governmental, non-religious humanitarian aid organization with a mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies.
  5. GlobalGiving: GlobalGiving is a crowdfunding community which helps nonprofits all over the world access the tools, training, and support they need to be more effective and make our world a better place.

I hope you take the time and make the commitment to help fellow citizens in need.

Preparing for a Hurricane

Living as I do in New Jersey, I rarely have found myself in the direct path of a hurricane. But in 2011 and 2012, New Jersey was hit in back-to-back years by landfalling hurricanes. Irene in 2011 was not nearly as disastrous as Sandy was in 2012. And, of course, Sandy was not technically a hurricane when it made landfall, according to the National Weather Service. Thankfully, in both cases, we had enough time to prepare for the storm ahead of time, in order to keep safe. Hurricane prediction has progressed to the point where most areas usually have a few days of preparation time. So, how do you prepare for a hurricane that is on its way in order to keep you and your loved ones safe?

First, be aware. What is the expected track of the storm? What effects are likely for your area, and when are those expected to arrive? There are a number of places to go for this information, and I detailed three sites in my last post for you to visit.

Second, gather needed supplies. Fill your car’s gas tank. If you will be sheltering in your home throughout the storm, be sure to have supplies for at least three days, if not as much as a week. You may be without power or water for a few days, and you will need food, water, medicine and other supplies. A good rule of thumb for water is one gallon per person per day. You may be able to get by with a little less, but not much less, and you will want to be sure it is safe water, preferably bottled. You may want to fill a bathtub with water just in case. You want to have dry foods you can eat without cooking, including some fresh fruit if possible. Have enough medicine for at least a week. You also should have a battery-powered radio, extra batteries, a flashlight, and a basic first aid kit. If you plan to evacuate, be sure to gather your supplies in a safe durable bag.

Third, comply with any evacuation orders if they are given. Once the storm hits, and especially when the effects of the storm are at their most severe, you may not be able to call for and receive help if you need it. And if you do need help, you will put emergency responders in harm’s way coming to help you. Although you may have lived through previous hurricanes, if you are told to leave, leave. And unless you are strictly forbidden from doing so by where you are going, be sure to bring your pets, and food for them.

Fourth, prepare your home. If you have the time to do so before the storm or any evacuation, be sure to remove any loose objects from around your home that could become projectiles during the storm. Lawn furniture, potted plants, garbage cans, and other loose items should be brought into the home. You should probably make an effort to remove any loose or unsafe tree branches that could break or fly during the storm as well. If hurricane force winds are expected in your area, you might want to board up your windows with plywood, and, if you have a generator, be sure you have fuel for it and that it is in proper working order.

While the storm is underway, stay indoors and away from windows. There may be periods where the storms severe rain and wind bands ebb for a while, but it is probably not safe to travel during these times, as they could change quickly. You could also find yourself trapped by downed trees and power lines if you do venture out. Of course if you find yourself in a flooded area, try to get to higher ground as soon as possible.

This is just a partial list of things to do, and there are many places to go online for more information:

Keeping Aware of Hurricanes

We’ve all witnessed the terrible devastation brought on by the flooding rains of Hurricane Harvey. As the remnants of Harvey are about to move off the eastern coast of the United States today, a new threat looms on the horizon with Hurricane Irma. Irma is a major hurricane with winds of 115 mph as of the morning of September 3, and for now, the forecast track pulls the storm towards a possible US landfall. It is too early to say, for now, if this will play out, but if it does there could again be a swath of destruction.


Courtesy of National Hurricane Center:

While any impact from Irma is likely a week or more away, the National Weather Service has warned that the rest of this year’s hurricane season is likely to be an active one.


Hurricanes pose a grave threat to life and property. On average, these monster storms cause 60 injuries and 17 deaths in the United States per year, although with major storms these numbers can be much higher. At least 45 people have died as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and that number may yet increase.

What can you do to keep yourself and your family safe during hurricane season?

The first and possibly most important thing to do is to simply be aware of what is developing. There are many sources of information about what is going on in the tropics, and if there are storms that are currently posing a threat. Your local TV and radio stations can give you important information, but for larger-scale information, check out these sources:

The National Hurricane Center: The mission of the National Hurricane Center is “To save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts and analyses of hazardous tropical weather, and by increasing understanding of these hazards.” You can get reliable data about current storms, forecasts, and safety information from the NHC, and can also follow them on Twitter at @nhc_atlantic or on Facebook at @nwsnhc.

Weather Underground: A partner of The Weather Channel, Weather Underground (found at has been in business since 1993 and presents a ton of information about weather including a page on current tropical systems: They can also be found on Twitter @wunderground, and on Facebook at @wunderground.

Tropical Tidbits: There are obviously many other sites you can go to for tropical storm information, but one I love is Tropical Tidbits, which is run by Levi Cowan, a graduate student at Florida State University. There is so much information available there, including computer model data. A great job by Mr. Cowan, and a great place to go for more information on storms.

As we are entering the height of hurricane season, how can you be ready when storms threaten? Tomorrow I will post information about storm preparedness.

Harvey Flooding

Catastrophic rains continue to plague Texas as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey deluge the area.

This image shows the rainfall in just the past 24 hours. An area the size of New Jersey and Delaware combined has received over 12 inches of rain, with some areas already totally flooded.

usa est precip 082617

Unfortunately, the track of the storm over the next few days remains in the same general area.


Over just the next 24 hours alone many of the areas that already received flooding rains are expected to see much more. The map below shows forecast amounts of 4-8″ in the next day.


For more information about how you can help Harvey’s victims, visit, which has links to a number of agencies helping people cope with this disaster.

Inconvenient Realities

I’ve been asked a number of times over the years my thoughts regarding climate change, given my undergraduate degree in meteorology. For a long time, my response was somewhat noncommittal in that although it seemed likely that something was changing, and evidence was increasingly pointing the finger of blame at man, I wasn’t clear on the ramifications of the increase of these greenhouse gases. We do our best to model what the atmosphere is going to do, but on a global scale, who is to say that other factors wouldn’t step in to moderate the worst effects? Truthfully, in college, we did not spend much time on climate studies or on climate change in particular. We were busy learning the “primitive equations” and thermodynamics. Those subjects were hard enough.

But, I was in college in the mid 1990s. In more recent years, evidence of increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being tied to the activities of human beings, as well as evidence of a clear global trend toward warmer temperatures, has made ignoring the scientific consensus about climate change truly dangerous not just for future generations but for all of us alive today. Climate change threatens the health and well-being of all of us, not just those living on the coastlines or on islands, or people who will live centuries from now. Whether it is the danger from melting ice and glaciers, coastal flooding and inundation, deadly heat waves, or more common and severe storms, the threat of climate change is real and current.

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen some of the charts showing the evidence of climate change. Two of the most significant are shown here:


This first graphic shows the steep and startling rise in global temperatures in the past century generally, but most dramatically in the past 30 years. Some of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 10 years.


(Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

This second chart shows the global levels of carbon dioxide over the past 400,000 years, sampled from ice cores. As you can see, carbon dioxide levels over the past 400 millennia have never been as high as they are now, and the burning of fossil fuels is by far the most likely reason for this change.

You also no doubt hear that there is some skepticism about climate change, and to be fair, as I mentioned upfront, not everyone is 100% convinced, even in the scientific community, about how the earth will respond as it gets warmer. But although some of the most dire predictions made in the past 30-50 years have yet to happen, we are unambiguously moving toward a future where lands will be flooded, ice will be melted, storms will be more severe, and climates will change. We know this because these things are already happening.

Former Vice President Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, made in 2006, set forth in clear images and terms the dangers we all face. It was an excellent movie that I found moving and highly thoughtful. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it, particularly if you are on the fence about climate change. I am exploring climate change today because this weekend is the release of the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, entitled An Inconvenient Sequel. This movie talks about the fight against climate change including the creation of the Paris accords signed by nearly every country on Earth, and from which Donald Trump has said he will pull the USA. But it seems that the movie has a hopeful focus, looking at how available and affordable renewable energy has become, and how people, businesses and governments are waking up to the realities and dangers of a changing climate.

Science should not be political. We are all in this together. We truly have (at least as of this writing) no other world to inhabit. So, to protect the health, well-being and environment of you and all those about whom you care as well as everyone else in the world: read, get informed, vote, conserve energy whenever possible, and support scientific research into weather and climate.

For more information about climate change, please visit these sites:

Extreme Heat Happening Now

Yesterday’s post about the dangers of extreme heat couldn’t have been more timely. As was reported in yesterday’s New York Times as well as other media outlets, while most of the country is experiencing hot and humid weather, the western states–particularly Washington, Oregon and California, are suffering through a terrible heat wave. Many areas will see high temperatures around or above 100 degrees. The map below shows forecasted high temperatures for today.


The Dangers of Extreme Heat

I really don’t like the heat. To me, hot and humid weather is just about the worst kind of weather there is. Well, maybe 35 degrees with rain is worse. I can remember back in college when I worked as a weather observer and had to get up at 6am to take readings.. one day in January it was just above freezing and raining heavily. That hurt.

But heat can hurt too. Actually, it is really quite dangerous. While the onset of summer is a cause for celebration for many people (think children, teachers, families on vacation, etc.) there are weather-related health concerns that are often overlooked or minimized during this season. Summer storms can bring flooding or tornadoes. Summertime also sees the ever increasing likelihood of tropical storms and hurricanes. Air pollution is at its worst. But often more dangerous, and even more overlooked, is the danger posed by extreme heat. And as climate change threatens to make extreme heat events even more common, it is important to recognize the danger posed by extreme heat, and to know what to do about it.

Heat is among the leading weather-related killers in the United States. Sources differ on just how many people die each year due to heat. According to the National Weather Service, over the last 10 years, on average 97 people have died directly from heat-related causes each year. In 2016, the number of heat-related deaths was just under this average, at 94.  Other sources suggest that as many as 1000 people die each year due to heat, though this higher number likely includes indirect heat-related causes of death, such as asthma or other breathing-related illnesses worsened by heat. Older adults tend to bear the brunt of heat-related illnesses and mortality. The National Weather Service reported in 2016 that of the 94 people who died directly due to heat, 67% of these deaths occurred in individuals age 50 or older.

Heat waves tend to be particularly dangerous. While there is no universal definition of a heat wave, it is generally defined as a longer period (usually 3 or more days) of unusually hot and/or humid weather. The extended period of heat, along with unusually warm nights, are what make them so deadly. One of the worst heat waves in US history occurred in the summer of 1936, when temperatures soared across almost the entire country. Particularly hit hard were the upper plains states, like North and South Dakota, but even New Jersey saw temperatures rise above 110 degrees. Many states have all-time high temperature records still standing from this heat wave.


Average temperatures during July 1936.  
(Image courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information)

What’s so dangerous about the heat? Basically, our bodies are meant to stay right around the same temperature all the time, usually between 97.5 and 99.5 degrees for most people. This is why we shiver when it gets cold and sweat when it gets hot–it’s our body trying to regulate itself. But when it gets too hot and humid, sweating doesn’t cool us down enough. Or, we might lose too much fluid, and salt, from sweating. If the body reaches 107 degrees, organs can fail and death may occur. Heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the three steps of danger in extremely hot conditions. Simple cramping can quickly lead to faintness, nausea, fatigue and headache when heat exhaustion sets in. And if untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition.

And it doesn’t have to be excessively hot to cause health problems. The combination of heat and humidity, often called the heat index or the THI (temperature-humidity index) can have the same effect as heat alone. Even temperatures in the upper 80s can become hazardous if relative humidity levels climb toward 60%, a combination found in many areas in the US in the summer. And any prolonged exposure to high heat is dangerous.

So what should you do when the heat hits? Well, obviously, drink plenty of cool fluids and get inside into the air conditioning. Before air conditioning, though, people often went outside to avoid stifling indoor temperatures. Sleeping outside in screened-in porches was common in the days before air conditioning became ubiquitous in the 1940s. Today, there are many ways to keep cool on hot days including:

  • Staying hydrated, particularly avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • Eating smaller meals, including those with fruits and vegetables not requiring cooking
  • Using fans, like ceiling or box fans, and
  • Moving to lower levels of buildings, since heat tends to rise

Heat brings to mind summer fun for many of us, and rightly so. But keeping the potential dangers in mind, and how to avoid them, allows us to enjoy more summer days to come.


Heat-related bonus fact: Many people know about heat waves. But have you ever heard of a heat burst? This rare meteorological phenomenon occurs when a thunderstorm dies out in an area with warm, dry air aloft. The downdraft from the dying storm can pull down the warm, dry air, which warms as it drops. This can cause a rapid rise in temperature. It is rare and short-lasting but can raise temperatures up to 20 or 30 degrees in just a few minutes!

Outlook for Late Summer and Early Fall

The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service released their 3-month outlook for August, September and October in mid July. For most of the USA, equal chances of above and below normal temperatures and precipitation are expected, but there are several areas, including the highly populated east coast and northeastern areas of the country, where warmer than normal weather is indicated, as these maps show:



We are forecasted to be in a neutral El Nino/La Nina situation (sometimes called La Nada), so sea surface temperatures are not expected to be a major factor in or influence on our weather for these three months. In much of the area expected to experience above normal temperatures, this anomaly is due to recent trends, according to the National Weather Service.  Given that much of these areas only have a slight liklihood of above normal temperatures (just over 50%), we might see some mixing of warmer and cooler periods, and the temperature might just average slightly above normal. In any event, it does appear that warmer weather will last into early Autumn so don’t put away your summer clothes on Labor Day!

Health and Summer Weather

One of the worst upper respiratory infections I’ve ever had occurred during the summer. I had been in Atlantic City for a couple of days, and just a day or two after returning home, I began to feel the tell-tale symptoms: sore throat, body aches, fever. This cold got better, then got worse, and the after-effects–cough and post-nasal drip in particular, seemed to linger for about a month. It was an awful way to spend a summer. Fortunately, catching a summer cold is relatively rare. People are less cooped-up indoors in the summer, making the sharing of germs harder. And children are not in school during the summer months, making them less prone to bring home the germs they pick up during the school year from classmates.

But there are other summertime health issues, brought on by the particular types of weather most commonly experienced during these warm months. Summer heat and humidity can cause heat rash or hives, and can often make breathing more difficult for those with existing cardiovascular concerns. Increased sweating caused by summer heat can bring on dehydration. Summer storms, particularly when people have outdoor plans, carry with them the dangers associated with lightning strikes. Let’s examine each of these in more depth, and look at some helpful ways to avoid the risks associated with them.

Many people think of heat rash as a condition that only affects children. Babies are often afflicted by itchy, painful skin on their neck and chest. But adults exposed to high heat and humidity can develop similar welts, bumps, and painful itchy skin as well. Caused by blocked sweat ducts and sweat trapped under the skin, this condition is typically easy to clear by getting out of the heat, and into cooler clothing or applying cool compresses or lotion to the skin. Similarly, high heat, humidity, and excessive sweating can cause hives—itchy, painful, raised bumps on the skin. Again, cool loose clothing and an antihistamine, if needed, usually provide relief. From a weather perspective, 11am to 3pm tends to be the hottest part of the day, and humidity is usually at its highest level in the morning, so limiting outdoor activities during these periods is advisable, particularly on hotter days.

Summertime heat and humidity also can also worsen breathing difficulties, particularly for those living with asthma or COPD. Extreme levels of heat and humidity can cause problems because high heat causes the body to work harder to cool itself, which taxes the heart and lungs. High heat also causes ground level air pollution to be worse, especially ozone levels. The warmer months also tend to be the worst months for allergens that affect breathing such as grass pollen, and ragweed. Again, staying indoors during the hottest and most humid parts of the day, and running the air conditioning to keep temperatures and humidity at comfortable levels are among the steps one can take to avoid these issues. Visiting websites such as or can help you keep up with the forecasted levels of pollen and pollution in your area. shot2

Mid-Atlantic Map for July 29, 2017 courtesy of

Obviously, being out in the summer heat and humidity causes one to sweat. This is the natural way that our bodies seek to regulate our body temperatures. Sweating allows for evaporative cooling to occur. Evaporation takes heat, so as a result the skin cools slightly. But in extreme heat, this process does not work fast enough to keep us cool, and when the humidity is high, it makes this process less efficient, as the moisture in the air makes evaporation less likely. But all that sweating takes another toll on our bodies–the potential of dehydration. It is essential to replace lost fluids in order to keep the normal biological processes of the body running. Without enough fluid, the loss of sodium and potassium in the body can be potentially very dangerous. So, when spending time outdoors in the heat and humidity, drinking water or sports drinks helps avoid the danger of dehydration.

Summer thunderstorms are a common occurrence. Heat and humidity often provide the convection needed to allow pop-up storms to flare up. And passing cold fronts often provide the lift needed to cause a strong line of storms to develop. While most people instinctively know from an early age to avoid the lightning associated with these storms, many people discount the danger. While lightning strikes are only lethal in about 10% of cases, nearly 2000 people are killed each year by lightning. And even surviving a lightning strike can cause severe and long lasting health problems. The fact is, when you are close enough to a thunderstorm to hear the lightning, you are close enough to be struck by that lightning, as lightning bolts can travel as far as 10 miles from a storm. So, when you hear thunder, go inside. But just being indoors is not enough sometimes. A recent story about a man struck by lightning while in his office demonstrates that it is also important to keep away from electrical appliance, outlets, corded phones, and even showers or baths during thunderstorms. A full list of lightning safety tips can be found on the National Weather Service website.

Summer is a time of outdoor recreation and activity. But it can also be a time of weather-related health dangers. Knowing about these dangers and how to avoid them can keep you healthy and safe.

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