“But It’s a Dry Heat”

Oh, is it?

It’s quite intriguing how we love our one-liners in this country.  Clint Eastwood’s “Go ahead, make my day,” Poltergeist’s “They’re here,” Jim Carry’s “So you’re saying there’s a chance” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back”, to name a few, are intertwined into our upbringing, becoming an integral part of our culture. 

A solidly landed one-liner can transport in time and space much like songs or certain smells take you to a world of the past, yet still within your complex makeup.  For instance, “Play Ball,” brings the feeling of spring, new beginnings, baseball season, a bit of refreshment, excitement, and re-birth after coming out of a long, dark, cold winter, for many that experienced those traditions.  It’s more than just a one-liner, it’s a feeling, a trigger of hope.

 We have the same in the weather/climate community. One-liners usually explain a significant event or a particular phenomenon. “Toad Strangler”, for instance, is a southern term that explains a significant down pour usually associated with a thunderstorm, and unfortunately self-explanatory, but instinctively captures the intensity of the imminent weather. “Nor-Easter” and “Snowmageddon” are well known explanations of winter storms usually across the eastern coast of the U.S.

Unfortunately, much of the time these honed quips are lasers aimed from ‘experts’ harboring deep biases in weather, climate and forecasting to explain the entirety of complex science and processes behind the atmospheric phenomenon and effects in a few choice words. Having now lived in the southwest for twelve of the last seventeen years there is one glorious liner that just keeps on giving:

 “But it’s a dry heat.”

 This little nugget is incredulously laid down within a conversation with family members or colleagues in other parts of the country comparing the temperature they are uncomfortably dealing with at the time, to the heat experienced in the Southwest.

Of course, in the true American tradition, one person HAS to be superior, even if it’s in suffering more than the other.  These ‘heroes’ seek victory in the self-imposed battle of who has to deal with the worst weather while, I’m sure, they are single handedly saving the world around them–true martyrs.

The implication is if you live in a ‘dry heat’ region, it’s not even hot, is it?  It’s a paradise, a tropical wonderland, right?  How dare you have the audacity to compare your privileged ability to live in paradise with the deep suffering of someone who lives where it’s hot and humid.  So, that’s it. I have no argument, right? I live in an area where it’s a “dry heat”.  The only exception to that is yes, it is a dry heat…until it isn’t.  So, I say to the implied challenge of who has it worse?  Accepted! Who suffers most? Who’s pushed to the outer limits of stress and discomfort? We will be the victor here.  My village suffers more than yours, which, by default makes me us better martyrs—heroes. Listen up Uncle Frank!!

A monsoon is an atmospheric phenomenon that happens at different locations around the world. In the United States it takes place in the Southwest, where it’s called the North American Monsoon or NAM, for short.  The driving physical mechanisms starts in the spring into and through June where the sun heats the land in the region. A high pressure sets up in the four corners region as the jet stream has migrated north for the summer. On this large scale, the hot land heats the atmosphere that is close to it. As the air warms it becomes more buoyant than the surrounding air, which causes it to rise. 

Due to the laws of nature, more specifically the Law of Conservation of Mass, rising air at a location on the earth’s surface MUST be replaced by air from a different location, or, by nature of the title, it’s breaking the law.[1] This drives a large-scale shift in the winds, which normally primarily blow from the west, to blow out of the south, or in the deepest technical term we can use, southerly. This is the monsoon: a shift in the winds on a large regional scale.

As the rising air causes flow to now be southerly, moisture is brought in from the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. The air that is now transported into the desert southwest is extremely moist–full of water vapor.  A change to life is now upon us.

We know with added water comes added change of precipitation with widespread thunderstorms and rain. Flooding and flash flooding become major threats in our region. But what about the day-to-day things that a sudden dose of moisture brings…those things we don’t continuously or consciously register. Things that eat away at our underlying frustration level. Suddenly we are living in an atmospheric sea of moisture, and we haven’t had to deal with it for the last eight months.   

What about that?  

  1. In 1783, Swiss physicist and geologist, Horace Benedict de Saussure built the first hair-tension hygrometer using human hair.[2] Human hair (and animal hair, for that matter) is hygroscopic (tending toward holding moisture) and lengthens with additional moisture in the air and shortens when it’s dry.  It’s change in length is so consistent and repeatable that it can accurately be used to measure the amount and change of moisture in the air. In our house, we have our own one-liner to explain the rapid moisture increase during the monsoon season — ‘Bad Hair Day’.  This leads to weeks of starting the day with bouts of grooming frustration, spreading to underlying irritation, ultimately infiltrating the house with a persistent dense fog of stress.
  • At the same time, the “Rings of Monsoon” (I just made that up) are upon us.  The increase in moisture in the air increases its dew point – the temperature an air parcel, when cooled, condenses into water.  Chilled bottles or glasses of water or your favorite beverage can now cool the small layer of air on the outside of the container to the air’s dew point, which is now higher and more easily reached.  We’ve all seen the tragic results, the water on the outside of the glasses and bottles coalesces into larger drops of water and drip down onto the surface causing permeant rings on any wood furniture—including antiques, might I add, and it doesn’t care if I was entrusted with Aunt Judy’s heirloom.  Those first few weeks of monsoon season are a time of forgetting to put out coasters where they have not been needed the last eight months. The fog of stress starts to get denser and I’m sure I’ve heard the coyotes getting closer.
  • Tempers are short and frustration levels are at eleven.  Now what?  I’m sweating more and the odor emitting from my body would cause an elephant’s nose to wrinkle. For the previous eight months my body would quickly evaporate any perspiration that formed on my skin. Now, it stays on the skin unable to evaporate into the saturated atmosphere. Clothes try to take up the slack and start soaking up the sweat, but all in all it doesn’t smell good, at all. The household is already peaked in frustration, so a stroll down the hallway with a foul odiferous cloud pushes the tension to the breaking point.

Now, it is not only hot (still 100’s (F) , by the way) AND humid, the house is fraught tension like a bomb waiting for the timer to go off. 

It’s nothing like the serine paradise of those that live in a moist heat area where it is ONLY hot and humid.

Although, the therapeutic smell of creosote from the desert after a monsoon rain or a moist ground brings a peace and calm that is unlike anywhere else in the world – grounding your mental state right back, clearing the dense fog of stress from the house. 

Maybe we do have it better – here in the land of desert monsoon.

“It’s a non-dry heat.”  

(Oh, and by the way….we LOVE it!!)

[1] In physics and chemistry, the law of conservation of mass or principle of mass conservation states that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy, the mass of the system must remain constant over time, as the system’s mass cannot change, so quantity can neither be added nor be removed.

[2] Draper, John William (1861). A Textbook on Chemistry. Harper & Bros. p. 55