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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Blame It On The Sunshine

How’s about this weather, huh? For most of human history, what the weather was doing immediately impacted our survival. These days, we’re better at escaping the weather; it doesn’t affect our daily lives like it did 10,000, 1000, or even 100 years ago. It’s easy to think it doesn’t affect us at all. But it’s still there, pouring, rumbling, blustering along, and it’s still changing our lives in various ways. Alexandra Hollis looks closer at the relationship between weather and mood.

AIN’T NO SUNSHINE? THEN YOU’RE GONE

Turns out, a sunny disposition isn’t all politicians need this election year. They might also need actual sun. It’s prevailing wisdom that the weather on Election Day affects election results, but most of the work done on this has focussed on how bad weather affects voter turnout. However, when Anna Bassi, a political scientist from the University of North Carolina, looked at the impact of weather on the way people vote, she had some pretty decisive results.

Within an experiment where participants were asked to vote on candidates with very similar policies, with one candidate being less risky than the other, Bassi found that “sunlight and good weather have a positive impact on the likelihood of voting for riskier candidates, while voters rely more heavily on less risky candidates in bad weather.” She theorised that this was because “self-assurance and attentiveness display a statistically significant decrease in bad weather conditions, while sadness displays a statistically significant increase”; in bad weather, we’re in worse moods. And when we’re in a bad mood, our future outlook tends to bleaker, making it less likely that we’ll vote for a candidate we perceive to be risky and likely to fuck up our lives even more than they’re already fucked up.

 

SUMMERTIME SADNESS

As well as daily weather, we have an instinctive cultural understanding that seasons affect mood. Summer, filled with light and the laughter of children, is seen to be equated with happiness; winter, cold and dark, filled with the gnawing absence of the laughter of children, signals sadness. And there’s scientific evidence to back up this seasonal dichotomy; Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder which affects up to half a million Americans, is marked by a significant depressive period in winter.

But it’s not this clear-cut. A recent report from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, where they have been studying suicide in Greenland, says that, although “it is a widespread belief that the peak [in suicide rates] occurs in late autumn and early winter in relation to darkness,” results show suicide rates peaking instead in spring and summer for both the northern and southern hemispheres. In Greenland, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, this is especially pronounced, with 82 per cent of suicides occurring during the summer. These suicides occurred more often in the north of the country, where there is constant daylight for the four months from the end of April to the end of August. The researchers noted that “the majority of suicides seem impulsive rather than depressive,” theorising that these suicides may have been brought about by “a mixed affective state or delirium triggered by sleeplessness in the bright summer night.”

SAD also manifests in the summer, with increased anxiety, insomnia, and, in some cases, hypomania. Although the idea of the ‘winter blues’ persists, for some people summer is more fraught with illness than winter. So much for the laughter of children.

 

IN WARM BLOOD

Temperature, too, plays a large role in determining our behaviour. There is a significant correlation between heat and violent crime: Craig and Dona Anderson performed a study in the ‘90s and found that “aggressive crime increased in frequency as temperature increased.” Ellen G Cohn, a criminologist who focusses on the link between weather and crime, also notes that “assaults, burglary, collective violence, domestic violence, and rape tend to increase with ambient temperature at least up to about 85°F.”

The reason for this, academics from Berkeley (Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang and Edward Miguel) explain, is to do with aggression; as temperatures rise, especially in cities, people tend to become more irate. Hence the increase in instances of violent crime. But these researchers were concerned with another issue: scarcity. They conducted a ‘meta-study’, analysing historical accounts of conflicts and weather, and found, with results which were “extremely unlikely to happen by chance,” that “episodes of extreme climate make people more violent toward one another.” Apart from aggression due to heat, they attribute this violence to the scarcity in resources which extreme weather brings, and conflict arising from this competition.

With climate change leading to more extreme weather, this bodes ill for our future. As Burke, Hsiang and Miguel say, “our children and grandchildren could face an increasingly hot and angry planet.”

 

WEATHER RAPPORT

There’s this idea that you shouldn’t talk about the weather, that to talk about the weather is to descend into the depths of anecdotal despair, a sign that you’re turning, inevitably, into Great Aunt Karen With All The Cats.

But the weather impacts so much more than needing to trot out that ugly raincoat your mum made you buy; we know this. We live in Wellington. Our weather is not small-talk weather; it’s not polite weather. It’s weather which makes the news, and justifies making the news. I am strangely, quietly, proud of this; in the midst of our most roof-battering storms, my hometown pride, absent for Phoenix games or Lonely Planet rankings, comes out in full force.

Live in this city for long enough, and weather becomes at best a regular source of conversation, and, at worst, an obsession. It’s how we connect ourselves to our environment, and our environment to others. If I was trying harder to justify having spent 1000 words talking about the weather, I’d even call it a form of civic bonding. But I won’t. Because you shouldn’t have to justify talking about the weather. It affects us in ways we don’t even realise; it’s changing in drastic and terrifying ways, and there’s so fucking much of it to talk about.

Winter is coming. Have fun.

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