(This article originally appeared in Arizona City Independent Edition, April 17, 2002)
Living with autoimmune diseases most of my life, I knew even as a kid that weather has a definite effect on my health. Unfortunately, nobody else cared. Even Jim took 30 years to acknowledge the effect weather has on the way I feel. I'd have moved to the mild climate of Arizona decades ago, but I wasn't given that choice until recently.
Mild? you may ask. Granted, the desert summer is nothing to brag about, except in its tendency to reach the upper extremes of temperature. But the other nine months of the year are pure heaven here compared to conditions in most of the rest of the country, especially all but one of the places where I've lived.
I must admit, when I lived there in the 1960s, southern California was my idea of paradise. Now the crowds, smog, rising cost of living, and crumbling infrastructure tend to tarnish that picture. Anyway, I'm crazy about the weather, people, and laid-back lifestyle of southern Arizona.
Weather is a complicated animal, no matter where it lives. There are still times when atmospheric factors here give Jim and me more than a twinge. At such times, it helps to understand what the weather is doing, so we'll know "this too shall pass." That little storm front on the radar screen will soon move on its way and cause problems for folks farther east, and we'll feel better again.
Temperature is the single atmospheric factor most people have an opinion about. Some like it hot, while others crave the cold. I like moderate temperatures, with highs no more than . . . well . . . in Arizona it can reach the high 90s and I'm still okay. When Georgia temperatures reached the high 80s, with humidity to match, that was too much. Low temperatures follow the same rule. With low humidity here, I can take lower lows, but the low 50s is my ideal limit in that direction.
Humidity is another factor people understand. When the humidity is high, you know it, and really low doesn't feel great either, for a different reason. Fifty-percent humidity is pretty good back east but high in the desert. In Georgia, relative humidity in the 90s is common, which feels akin to treading water. Step out of the shower there, and you wonder why you bothered, until you smell yourself! Everything in that part of the world has a tinge of eau de moule. (Loosely translated, that's "essence of mold.")
Low humidity and the lack of extreme low temperatures make southern Arizona pleasant for most of the year. Only during the hottest summer days when the humidity rises as high as, say, 65% do I feel a slight touch of the "wet blanket" that had been so familiar back east. Yet, in Georgia, the summertime humidity is often above 90%, with corresponding 90-degree temperatures. That memory helps me get through the desert summer here with little complaint.
A third factor that makes a real difference is the one few people understand, even some people who should know all about weather. If they realized how much barometric air pressure affects the way people with certain medical conditions feel, some weathercasters would report that factor more carefully than they do now.
Most include the number value of the air pressure in their weather reports, but a few omit the fact that the value is rising, falling, or steady. This point is important to know when the number is moving down at a time of day when it normally rises, and vice versa.
The average barometric air pressure at sea level is around 30.00. That means 30 pounds of air pressure per square inch is pressing in on our bodies. That pressure keeps our cells humming along pretty smoothly. Higher or lower air pressure can affect the way our bodies operate.
Changes in air pressure have a profound effect on the way people with such autoimmune conditions as arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, etc., feel. For instance, I usually feel best in pressure ranging between 30.15 and 29.90. If it's higher or, especially, lower, I feel worse, because damaged tissue becomes inflamed in those conditions. The more disease has damaged our bodies, the more like barometers we become.
In Georgia, my body would tell me, painfully, when a storm was hovering over Texas that wouldn't reach our area for at least three more days. Here, I can detect a storm off the Pacific coast, but with low humidity and tolerable temperatures, it doesn't hurt as much as it did back east.
I didn't understand air pressure's role in my health until 1997, though a doctor mentioned it to me in passing back in the '70s. I knew then that temperature and humidity were culprits, because I had violent reactions whenever weather fronts moved into the area. That was in Houston, where rain was a regular event. Our move to Georgia in 1991 made things even worse for me, since the southeast is even wetter than the Texas Gulf Coast.
On the other hand, humidity did affect me differently in those two places. Water in the Houston air held more chemicals than biological substances. In the piney woods north of Atlanta, I inhaled more plant life, especially allergenic pollens. Neither was comfortable, but advancing age and progressing disease enhanced my discomfort more in Georgia than in Texas. For people who are more sensitive to chemicals than pollens, the opposite is probably true.
A tiny item in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution made me realize how air pressure affects my health. I learned how to set and check my barometer and noticed that the lower the pressure, the worse I felt. Of course, other factors change at the same time, so a barometer isn't absolutely necessary, but it helps. In Georgia if the humidity rises and the temperature goes down, there's a good chance the pressure is dropping too--and I'll feel really "punk." In the summer around here, low pressure often comes with high heat and humidity, as I learned during my first summer here in 2001.
What puzzles me is why some weather forecasters fail to include all these factors in their reports. Even officials at The Weather Channel didn't understand when I told them in 1997 that local cable operators should list the letters, "R(ising)," "F(alling)," and "S(teady)," with the numbers in their hourly reports. At the time, some cable operators even omitted barometric pressure from the "current conditions" crawl at the bottom of the screen.
Most Atlanta TV stations did it right, but there was always one that didn't include the letters. Still, by the time we left Georgia in 2000, everybody there, including TWC, headquartered in Atlanta, did it perfectly all the time. Imagine my surprise when we came here and discovered that one TV station omitted the letters, and another station completely ignored barometric data in their weather reports!
To be fair, that station did carry complete barometric data on their web page for a number of Arizona communities. In response to an e-mail I sent to the station's head weather reporter, I was told that they don't bother with the information because of the low incidence of storm systems in the area and the fact that air pressure, like temperature, rises and falls all the time. I'd remember that "reason" whenever I tuned in to any other Phoenix station besides that one to verify that my barometer wasn’t lying when the needle told me why I was feeling so lousy!
As bad as I feel around here once in a while, after more than seven years in paradise, at no time do either Jim or I feel as bad as we did most of the time we lived back east. So, when we do get to feeling kind of "funky," we always recite the anthem that helps us through those low periods:
"It ain't Georgia!"