Lynn Ashby

THE TV – “It’s hot out there, folks,” says the meteorologist. I glance at the screen and see a map of Texas with 101, 103 and 110 scattered around the state. Lordy, despite what Ted Cruz and Donald Trump claim, there really may be something to global warming. Wait. I see in the top left-hand side of the TV screen, in little bitty letters: “Feels Like.” I’ve been conned again, so bear with me as once more I try to point out that the emperor is not wearing a bikini. 

There is no official Feels Like figures. NOAA does not record such readings. You can’t go back and look at the record books to find what it felt like on a certain day. Only on local TV are these inflated figures announced, and in breathless tones.The difference in the actual temperature and the Feels Like figure (also called the Heat Index) is determined by a complicated formula that includes the temperature, plus the humidity, cloud cover, wind speed, sun intensity and the Astros’ bullpen ERA. A major component is the humidity. In Houston, where you can tie a knot in a Frito, we would normally be dry except there are nine large humidifiers placed around town to keep the air humid because dermatologists say moisture is good for the skin. 

A day that is very humid may feel hotter than it really is outside, because your body sweat does not evaporate and cool the body like nature intended. This last element is what we climatic scientists call the “deodorant factor.” But it is all a fake. The real formula for determining the Feels Like number is simple: the TV weather person takes the actual temperature and adds 20 degrees, and no one questions the higher figure. But when it’s 100 degrees it’s 100 degrees. On the other hand, my mother was born and grew up in Dallas, and when she would come visit us in Houston she would subtly mention the Houston humidity, remarking that Dallas wasn’t like that. “Mom,” I would say, “I grew up in Dallas, too, and those summers were blisteringly hot.” She would reply: “But it’s a dry heat.” I’d try again: “When it was 105 degrees it was 105 degrees, and that’s hot!” Never argue with your mother. 

Then we have the Wind Chill Factor. It is the frozen equivalent of Feels Like. On cold winter days, TV weathercasters play the same games. “In Amarillo it’s minus 40 while in Denver it’s below any known reading.” Those are Wind Chill numbers. Hold the figures over a low flame to bring out the actual temperature. The Wind Chill Factor measures the effect of wind speed cooling the human body below 50 degrees. As airflow increases over the skin, more heat will be removed. This brings us to the question of what kind of dummy goes out in a blizzard with unprotected skin? OK, Green Bay Packer fans and Greenland flashers.  

Incidentally, you may be wondering exactly how hot and cold it really gets around here. The highest and lowest recorded temperatures in Texas are more than 140 degrees apart. The record high, 120 degrees, was recorded in June 1936 in the town of Seymour (current pop. 2,575) and in August 1994 in Monahans (current pop. 7,669). The record low of 23 degrees below zero occurred in February 1899 in Tulia (pop. 4,682) and in February 1933 in Seminole (pop. 5,910). I will leave it to you to wonder why, exactly, anyone would want to live in Seymour or Tulia. Maybe they man the weather stations. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the highest registered air temperature on Earth was 134.1degrees in Furnace Creek RanchCalif., located in Death Valley, on July 10, 1913. The coldest was minus 89.2 degrees at the Vostok Station, Antarctica, on July 7, 1983.

Right now we are going through a heat wave. This past June was the hottest June in Houston’s history, but you may remember Sept. 4, 2000. That's when Houston hit 109 degrees for the first of two times – marking the hottest temperature recorded in the Bayou City since the National Weather Service began keeping records here in 1889. Houston again hit 109 degrees in August 2011, but the temperature has never been hotter since. The all-time coldest temperature in Houston was 6 degrees on Feb. 12 and 13, 1899. 

Now about the Dew Point, another totally meaningless term unless you like to point to dews and need a stick. In simple terms, the Dew Point is the temperature at which water vapor in the air will form dew. More specifically, the Dew Point measures moisture in the air. (Just how this differs from the humidity percentage is known only to meteorologists and my mother.) Let’s try again: It is the temperature to which air must be cooled at constant pressure and water content to reach saturation. A higher Dew Point indicates more moisture in the air; a Dew Point greater than 68 degrees is uncomfortable. Have you ever left an air conditioned building to enter the Texas summer and commented: “I’ll bet we broke a Dew Point record today.”? Of course not, it’s like using the metric system for temperatures. The United States is the only major nation to use the Fahrenheit scale We are joined by the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, LiberiaPalau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. When was the last time you heard, “I’ll bet it’s 59 degrees Celsius today.”?

Why are there a Feels Like figure, a Heat Index and a Wind Chill Factor, and why do we care? It is simple self-importance and self-pity. We like to think we are suffering more than we really are. “Man, no wonder we’re miserable. It feels like it’s a hundred and twelve.” Or: “I heard on TV the Wind Chill Factor is zero minus zero.” If you don’t understand these readings, go ask your mother.   

Ashby sweats at ashby2@comcast.net

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