Seattle’s Darkest Day

Last Friday was a pretty dark day for Seattle.  Literally.

seattle-1In 1996, the University of Washington installed three pyranometers on the roof of one of its facilities in Seattle.  The pyranometers measure the amount of solar radiation (also known as sunshine) that reaches the surface of the earth.  On Friday, the devices registered an output of only a measly 0.37 megajoules of solar radiation per square meter — the lowest recorded daily measurement for the devices since the date of their installation.  The culprits for the dismal results — literally — were the very short day caused by the approaching winter solstice, heavy cloud cover, and heavy rain, too.

I can sympathize with the Seattle residents who cursed the infernal darkness last Friday.  I’m not sure whether we’ve got any pyranometers measuring the solar radiation in Columbus, but if there are, they’d be measuring pitiful amounts these days.  In the Midwest, our winters tend to be pretty gloomy affairs, too.  It’s not that we get a lot of snow — typically, we don’t.  Instead, it’s the unrelenting damp, heavy grayness that makes you feel like you’re living and working under a wet woolen blanket.  When the sun actually shines, all too briefly, it’s a cause for riotous celebration.

There’s a reason so many Midwesterners are snowbirds who head south for the winter.  Sure, they’re searching for warmth, but they’re also on a quest for much-needed sunshine.  Their internal pyranometers are telling them that they need to up their personal exposure to those bright, happy megajoules.

The Sun In Tucson

We came to Tucson, Arizona in search of blue skies, which are such a rare commodity in Columbus during the winter that we felt we needed to take a trip to find them.  Local lore in Tucson holds that it is sunny here more than 330 days out of the year.  The precise number of bright, clear days seems to vary somewhat depending on who is doing the telling, perhaps because the people doing the counting decided it was boring to sit and count the sunny days and it would be more fun to get out and actually do something in the fine weather.

And Tucson didn’t disappoint in the sunshine department.  When we ventured out yesterday morning it was cold, and the locals we encountered marveled that the Catalina Foothills mountains that border Tucson on one side were covered in snow and shining in the distance like low-lying clouds, as shown in the photograph above.  But the skies were a cheery, bright blue, the sun was blazing forth with superb intensity, and we had to use the visor of our rental car to allow us to move around town in the glare.  I immediately regretted that I forgot my sunglasses, but the sunshine was welcome even at that.

We knocked around Tucson and tromped through some of the desert areas, enjoying how the bright light allowed us to see every detail of the gigantic Saguaro cactuses and the other desert plants.  Later, we walked around the very cool Sam Hughes neighborhood adjoining the University of Arizona campus, where the colorful stucco walls of the ’20s-era Spanish style and Santa Fe style ranch houses glittered in the sunshine, the houses featured carefully tended desert plants and rock designs in their front yards, and some of the streets were lined with towering palm trees.  The sun was so bright that the shadows of the palm trees made it look like the sidewalks had been striped with black paint.

Oh, and we enjoyed some pretty good Mexican food, too.  Mexican food seems to go well with blue skies and sun.

Let The Sun Shine In?

I recently returned from a beach vacation.  One of our daily rituals was slathering on SPF 50 sunscreen to try to protect ourselves against the blazing sunshine.  We wanted to be in the warm sun rather than the gray cold Midwest, obviously, but we’d accepted the healthcare cautions about sunshine and skin cancer, and so the sunblock went on.

But what if the healthcare cautions that led to our lubing up are wrong — as in, 180-degree wrong?  What if exposure to sunshine is not only not bad for you, but in fact it helps you to be healthier in countless ways, by effectively and efficiently producing vitamin D, lowering blood pressure, making you feel happier, and having other therapeutic benefits?

6a00e5520572bb8834017d41062de7970c-320wiThat’s the intriguing conclusion of recent research that started with a look at the value of vitamin D supplements — which many people who avoid the sun are taking to try to compensate for the lack of solar-produced vitamin D.  Low vitamin D levels are associated with lots of bad stuff — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions — and vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and good bone health.  So vitamin D supplements should help, right?  But the research showed that vitamin D supplements weren’t having any discernible impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

Scientists scratched their heads and looked into the unexpected result, and started to find evidence that it wasn’t high vitamin D levels that prevented the bad conditions.  Instead, the presence of vitamin D was just a marker, and the real cause for the positive health effects was that sunlight that was producing the vitamin D.  The people who had the high vitamin D and were avoiding the bad conditions were getting plenty of sunlight.  Exposure to sunshine also causes the skin to produce nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure — which, as the article linked above points out, helps to explain why “rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months.”

And the vitamin D/blood pressure effects may just be the start.  The article continues:  “Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.”

But wait — won’t getting more sunshine cause skin cancer?  Yes, there is that risk — but the article points out that skin cancer is not nearly as lethal as the other diseases and conditions that exposure to sunlight helps prevent.  And, additionally, people who regularly get sunshine, avoid sunburns, and keep their tans going — like outdoor workers — are much less likely to experience melanoma, the less-common but potentially fatal kind of skin cancer.  In fact, the evidence indicates that long-term exposure to sun is associated with lower melanoma rates.

All of this will come as a surprise to people who are scared to death of skin cancer and buy sunblock by the carload, but it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our half-naked distant ancestors didn’t have SPF50 to apply, and they were exposed to the sun on a much more prolonged basis than modern, largely indoor humans.  It makes sense that humans would evolve in ways that would favor those who were more efficient in using that abundant, constant sunshine in positive, healthy ways.

Think about that the next time you’re carefully applying that SPF50 sunblock and popping down vitamin D pills.

Heading Cross-Country

Tonight I began my overnight cross-country trip that will take me from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, then to Boston, and finally to NYC.  Any experienced traveler will react to this wishful itinerary with the thought:  “Yeah, good luck with that!”  But sometimes you just have to try.

Boise was cloudless the whole time I was there, even when I boarded the plane, above — which I’ve got to say isn’t bad.  When I landed in Salt Lake City a few hours later I was horrified to see a few clouds in the sky, but the mountains that ring the airport, shown below, made up for it.

Now it’s time to fuel up on some great airport food, try to stay awake until my next flight boards, and then survive the red-eye. 

Yeah . . . good luck with that!

Into The Grey Season

IMG_3382At some point every year, the weather in central Ohio changes.  The sun decides to hide behind ever-present clouds, and we deal with the grey season.

This year, it seems like the grey season has come earlier than normal.  I’m already missing the bright days where the sun-dappled water sparkled.

On Golden Frond

IMG_2496The Caribbean sun is amazingly intense.  Being closer to the Equator results in a Sun that is dramatically different from the old Sol we get in Columbus, even during the hottest day of summer.  The blazing rays not only burn the skin of pale travelers from the North — as this pale Northerner can attest — but also can turn everyday items like the fronds on a palm tree into fantastic golds, and ochres and other colors never seen on a gray Columbus winters’ day.