It’s the humidity, stupid

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

Especially after one of those little mid-August midday thunderstorms. Or one of those hours-long soaking rains like Ipswich got this past Saturday.

I went outside and nearly died.

I wouldn’t have been the first.

Official Ipswich historian Gordon Harris has written that people died in a New England heatwave a century or two ago, but this is implausible. It wasn’t the heat. Heat is survivable. It was the humidity. Humidity kills.

I’m no scientist, but I can pretty much tell you how humidity works. Humidity is expressed in percentages. I understand percentages. If you have 50% humidity, for example, the math is easy: Half the air you take into your lungs is actually water. In 80% humidity, which is not uncommon in New England in the summer, you’re breathing in 8 parts water for every 2 parts air. This is not healthy. In 100% humidity, you can take a couple deep breaths and drown. Human beings were not intended to live in high humidity.

Other creatures are better suited to this brutal feature of New England’s summertime weather scene. A wild turkey hatched seven little ones and took up residence in my backyard. She has been strutting back and forth across my property for a few weeks, her babies looking like little velociraptors auditioning for a Jurassic Park movie, but with no hope of getting the role, because they’re so cute. In Saturday’s long downpour, the turkey family carried on business as usual, the mother’s coat of feathers appearing slimy-slick with rain. She was obviously unperturbed by the humidity, because turkeys clearly have little gills in their beaks that filter out the 8 parts water, and only let in the 2 parts air.

Of course I only observed the turkeys while barricaded behind a closed window at the back of my house, because, as I said, humidity can be deadly for humans.

I’m afraid many New Englanders labor under false perceptions about the science of our region’s summertime weather. Take thunder and lightning, for example. My wife Kristina works as a summer-season ranger at the Crane Estate, where she is often involved in hustling people away from open spaces and into the protection of their vehicles when lightning threatens. But the statistical chances of being struck by lightning are minimal. The danger of thunder is far greater. A sudden, unexpected, particularly sharp clap of thunder can make a person jump, and depending on your level of fitness, this jerking motion can snap your spine. Lightning could be crackling all around you and never harm a hair, but you could be paralyzed by the thunder.

Also, if you own a dog or a cat, a thunderclap can send them streaking through your house in a panic. They can dash across your feet or your lap, their claws ripping through your skin, leaving you to die from loss of blood, or rabies. When a thunderstorm is predicted, don’t attempt to comfort your pet by taking them in your arms. This is futile. They are hard-wired for thunder panic. It’s best to lock your pets away, and put in your earplugs.

New England weather is brutal, and not just in the wintertime. Between the humidity and the thunder, it’s a miracle that enough of us survived to populate the Northeast. But Native Americans apparently taught the early white settlers to deal with the most dangerous climatic extremes, and thank heaven they did.

Now we face grave new threats. Coronavirus, we now know, can be spread by droplets. What are droplets? Humidity, basically. Also, if you cough or sneeze, you “aerosolize” the virus. What is a cough or a sneeze other than a small, personal thunderclap? All the same principles apply.

(Also note that turkeys do not get COVID-19. Why not? Because of the gills.)

I know these days, there are many science-deniers out there, and I fear for them. Please, people, keep yourselves safe — from the dogs and the cats, and from the thunder.

And whatever you do, don’t breathe the water.


Doug Brendel lives in fear on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His wife, who got A’s in science, scrupulously and consistently refutes his scientific observations.

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