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« Disneyfat | Main | Climate Models Written in ... Fortran?!? »

July 29, 2009

Air Conditioning and Civilization

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I noticed a headline that Chicago is having its coolest July on record. Here in Seattle, we've had an unusually sunny summer and right now are experiencing a heat wave; today's high is expected to be a record 101 degrees (F).

It has to do with a combination of pressure systems and ridges that brought hot air from desert areas over us. The heat helps evaporate water from Puget Sound, Lake Washington and other large bodies of water; this creates non-desert humidity levels and a good degree of discomfort.

Worse, most houses here lack air conditioning because it's really needed only a few weeks a year and doesn't seem cost-effective.

As things stand, it's just about too to blog here at the house and the same will be true for the next couple of days.

This reminds me of living on the East Coast back in the 1960s. Where I lived lacked air conditioning, but at least there usually was air conditioning where I worked.

But what about the almost entirety of human existence where there was no air conditioning? Hot, humid air sucks energy out of one along with all that sweat. No wonder life in the old South was slow half the year. It must have been a struggle to accomplish those tasks that were essential, let along others.

Of course, defenses against the heat were used: placing shade trees strategically, creating rooms with high ceilings, having comfortable porches where one could escape hot interiors -- those kinds of things.

Nevertheless, I find it something of a wonder that civilizations sprouted in climate hell-holes such as India, Egypt, what is now Iraq, and Mexico-Central America. With heat slowing one to a snail's pace and sweat dripping off the nose, how did they even think of creating writing, arts, and other things we associate with civilized life?

And to what heights might they have arisen had they invented air conditioning?

Ah, the things we take for granted.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at July 29, 2009




Comments

Donald writes: "...Nevertheless, I find it something of a wonder that civilizations sprouted in climate hell-holes such as India, Egypt, what is now Iraq, and Mexico-Central America. With heat slowing one to a snail's pace and sweat dripping off the nose, how did they even think of creating writing, arts, and other things we associate with civilized life?..."

To some extent, human variability and plasticity in populations indigenous to various climates resulted over time in body forms that are more able to handle the thermoregulatory demands of those climates. It's been a few years, but if memory serves, Bergman's and/or Allen's rules about surface area to body volume describe the kinds of physical adaptations associated with certain climates. In tropical climates one needs to have greater surface area to volume so heat can be emitted more efficiently from the body core. Bodies tend to be more gracile or lanky. In arctic climates, one needs to retain the core heat so body forms tend to be more compact, with greater volume to surface area. These rules aren't the last word, but I think they're still believed to be roughly applicable.

Posted by: KR on July 29, 2009 2:34 PM



Best of luck weathering the weather in Seattle.

Interesting comment on the growth of civilization in some of the hottest areas of the world. But my guess is that it's easier or less critical to be able to cool off in a hot climate than it is to keep warm in a cold one. Cavemen Grok and Grokette could more easily drop their clothes and get jiggy anytime of the year in sweltering Egypt than they could in, say, northern Finland!

Posted by: logit on July 29, 2009 2:44 PM



From our reliable friend, Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_conditioning

"The concept of air conditioning is known to have been applied in Ancient Rome, where aqueduct water was circulated through the walls of certain houses to cool them. Similar techniques in medieval Persia involved the use of cisterns and wind towers to cool buildings during the hot season."

Doesn't talk about ancient Egypt or India, but they probably had something to cool them off.

Posted by: Steve-O on July 29, 2009 3:15 PM



"I noticed a headline that Chicago is having its coolest July on record. Here in Seattle, we've had an unusually sunny summer and right now are experiencing a heat wave; today's high is expected to be a record 101 degrees (F)."

On the other hand, it's been way cooler than average here on the East Coast. Most of the days here in upstate NY have topped out in the high 60's/low 70's, when temperatures are normally in the high 80's/low 90's. There are a few nights where the temperature gets as low as 37 degrees. It's been so nice I haven't had to install any AC units so far.

On the flip side, it has been raining an awful lot lately.

Posted by: Ferdinand Bardamu on July 29, 2009 4:29 PM



In places such as Egypt and Iraq, the low humidity would make hot temperatures reasonably bearable.

Posted by: Peter on July 29, 2009 4:30 PM



The trick is that heat is pretty easy to get over. Out here southwest of Phoenix, it's been 115 or more 10 days this month, and I've pretty much gotten used to it. Even if you don't have a/c, you can sit around in the shade from 10 to 5, and it's bearable. You get used to the heat after a while. Ancient peoples could do the same.

Contrast that to, say, New England in the winter. If you don't have big, resource expensive clothes, and a way to make resource expensive heat, you're done for. Civilization only really took off in northern climes with the advent of efficient stoves and coal.

Posted by: jacobus on July 29, 2009 5:44 PM



Civilizations sprouted in the places where growing food was less of a struggle so there was more time for someone to not grow food and hang around writing, etc.

And plants tend to grow better when it's warm. Plus the places you listed get two growing seasons, which has got to help.

Definitely with you on the assumption that air conditioning might have helped things along. ;)

Posted by: Boris on July 29, 2009 5:53 PM



If you are ever in the mood for some scary reading (as in "that was awful, glad I was never there"), I suggest Kipling's essay "The City of Dreadful Night": a description of a hot summer night in (I believe) Lahore.

Kipling touches on the climate in a number of his Indian stories. For instance, in "The Man Who Would Be King":

"... you have no idea how cold is 84 degrees on the grass until you begin to pray for it..."
Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 29, 2009 6:28 PM



I can tell you based on personal experience that Seattle's "heat wave" of 101 degrees is mild by Southern standards. I just got off the plane here in Atlanta from a trip to Seattle. The heat did not bother me there. It was about like a typical summer day of 85 degrees down here. It was dry heat in Seattle. Compared to our 98 degree days and humidity thick enough to do chin-ups on, I could deal with Seattle summers anytime. In fact, having just left Alderbrook resort (where I comfortably swam in the Sound), I can assure you that everyone there was loving the weather.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 30, 2009 1:05 AM



For those economists interested in this, there is a great paper by Jeff Biddle on air conditioning:
http://econpapers.repec.org/article/eeeexehis/v_3a45_3ay_3a2008_3ai_3a4_3ap_3a402-423.htm

Roger

Posted by: RogerClemens on July 30, 2009 11:59 AM



Razib at GNXP has a post on how life expectancy varies by county in the US. One of the commenters posted an average temperature map by county. Without doing any statistical analysis, there's certainly the appearance of a correlation between longevity and average temperature. The lower the better.

Posted by: mutecypher on July 31, 2009 5:42 AM



One thing you should remember is that the fatter you are, the lower temperatures you prefer. So temperatures which would be perfectly comfortable for everyone feel far too hot to most American fatsos, and not only the morbidly obese ones. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_neutral_zone ]

Also in every hot climate civilization time of maximum heat was a rest time, and people were active in cooler parts of the day. In modern civilization it's somehow unthinkable to mess with office hour schedule - schedule which makes perfect sense for temperate climates of UK and alikes, not really for Californian summer.

Add these two, and you have your answer.

Posted by: Tomasz Wegrzanowski on August 3, 2009 5:27 PM






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