The Strange Blissfulness of Storms

June 4, 2016

I felt pretty sure something was wrong when the deer began running toward me. I knew something was wrong when a pine branch flew by my head. The air went dark and a noise like a train barreled through the forest, the actual wind coming after the sound of itself. The trees all swayed in the same direction, and then came the slap of thunder.

I felt more than saw the huge shelf cloud, a wall of black striped with electricity, surge forward over the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains overlooking Green Bank, West Virginia. A sharp line against the blue sky, it looked less like weather and more like a Rothko. I lived in this remote town, and I was on my usual afternoon run, picking my way across the trails that led from my house to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I worked. Adrenaline told me I needed to fly, faster.

I ran two miles in 12 minutes, a pace I’d never maintained before and never have since, hurdling downed trees and power lines. When I got back to my house, surprised to be safe, I dragged my dog down to the farmhouse basement. After a restless 30 seconds, though, I bolted back upstairs, threw the door open, and stood on the porch. A wall of wind hit me. Lightning struck like a strobe. I felt awakened, alive, engaged. As the edge of the front pushed forward, the force seemed to clear the air and charge the whole scene with yellow-lit significance.

I’m not the first to feel this way, or write about it. “It was his impression that not just he but other people too felt better in hurricanes,” wrote Walker Percy in his novel The Last Gentleman, published in 1966. Today, people crowd around Weather Channel broadcasts and cross their fingers that storms will strengthen. They get giddy over thundersnow. Percy, a philosopher as well as a novelist, was intrigued by the phenomenon. In one of his earliest essays, published in the 1950s, he asked, “Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?”

Why hurricanes elevate our mood—lift us out of a malaise we might not even know we’re sunk in—is a rich question for philosophers, novelists, and people who like philosophy and novels. It’s deepened by the fact that our giddiness often comes spiked with guilt, and a revulsion at ourselves for hoping for, and enjoying, something so destructive.

But the thrill of storms may not just be a psychological phenomenon. A branch of science called biometeorology attempts to explain the impact of atmospheric processes on organisms and ecosystems. Biometeorologists study, among other topics, how the seasons affect plant growth, how agriculture depends on climate, and how weather helps spread or curb human diseases. For decades now, a faction have looked at how charged particles in the air, called ions, might alter our psyches as they wing in on the wind.

Explanations of the environment’s impact on us sometimes crash at the intersection of science and pseudoscience. The idea that electrically charged molecules affect humans has led to dubious cures like negative air-ionizing therapy. But recent, rigorous studies have hinted at compelling links between ions, physiology, and psychology. The collision of that work with the science of storms could bear a message of connection for us all.

Read More: Here

0 comment