The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 10, 2014

Major weather swings can be harmful to our physical, mental health

PITTSBURGH — Dramatic swings in temperature this week help us to realize why weather can make us sicker and crazier.

Biometeorology -- the study of weather's impact on living organisms including humans -- uses different terminology but concludes that weather itself, but specifically dramatic shifts in weather, can impact physical and even mental health.

The good health news? Experiencing such horrible stretches of weather better prepares us for what National Weather Service meteorologist Lee Hendricks said is a strong likelihood of another cold snap this winter. The so-called polar vortex, blamed for the sub-zero temperatures, could send us into another mental and physical vortex before spring.

"It's a huge swing physiologically," Jennifer Vanos, a biometeorologist and assistant professor of atmospheric science at Texas Tech University, said about Tuesday's record low of minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit sandwiched by unseasonable highs in the 50s. "People were not prepared. Physiologically, adapting is a tough thing to do when you are used to certain weather day after day."

But if another cold snap occurs, "people will be prepared," she said, especially for those 20 and under who never experienced such sub-zero temperatures. "They will know what to do, how to dress, and it won't be as stressful."

Long airplane rides usually are necessary for such swings in temperature. It's like flying round trip from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to the Yukon.

The Associated Press reported 21 deaths nationwide from the cold snap, most in the Midwest.

The normal high locally for early January is 36 degrees with a low of 21. In the week ending Saturday, if the forecasted high of 52 holds true, the region will have experienced a 61-degree swing. Last Sunday alone saw a temperature swing of 57 degrees -- 50 to minus 7, Mr. Hendricks said.

Along with potential dangers of extremely low temperatures, including hypothermia, frostbite and blood vessel constriction leading to heart attacks, quick shifts in barometric pressure, high or low, represents an unsuspected health villain.

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