Wednesday, November 28

An ill wind and a mass murder UPDATED 12:50 AM ET 11/29

After a dive into 'layperson-friendly' articles on the science of ions, which I didn't think to make until after I published this post, I am cautious about accepting Joan Didion's claim, "... what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy" -- a claim made by many others as well. But as a professor of chemistry quoted by a 2004 news report, Here's a shocker: Most ion claims don't pass muster observed:
... every time you create one type of ion, you create another type of ion. If you do something to create negative ions, at some location pretty close by, you're going to create an equal number of positive ions. Any light that produces negative ions has to produce the same number of positive ions.
I have no idea whether this means the Israeli physicist that Didion referenced was wrong (see her essay after my introduction, below). But the chemistry professor's observation causes me to question whether a preponderance of positive ions, if indeed present during and several hours prior to Santa Ana winds, can make people unhappy or drive them crazy, if they're always being bombarded with both positive and negative ions anyhow. 

Yet something about Santa Ana winds, which are foehn winds, upsets a great many people exposed to them and enough to drive many to distraction. The jury is still out on what it is, and of course it could be a combination of factors. From Wikipedia's article on the foehn wind:
Anecdotally, residents in areas of frequent foehn winds report a variety of illnesses ranging from migraines to psychosis. The first clinical review of these effects was published by the Austrian physician Anton Czermak in the 19th century. ... A study by the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München found that suicide and accidents increased by 10 percent during foehn winds in Central Europe. ... The cause of Föhnkrankheit (English: Foehn-sickness) is yet unproven.
The observations in the above-mentioned study comport with Didion's account of the Santa Ana effect. But I do have one other quibble: I question Didion's assertion that Israel's hamsin winds are foehn winds. I will leave it there as the question doesn't impinge on her account, which I find valuable even after all these years. 

"The winds show us how close to the edge we are."
-- Joan Didion, The Santa Ana, 1965

A chill went up my spine as I mentally registered the date. November 7? The shooting had been on November 7? The massive wildfires that had broken out on November 8 in California had dominated news from the state for weeks. By last night, when a news report mentioned that police still had no idea why Ian David Long had killed people in a bar in Thousand Oaks on November 7, I hadn't remembered the date of the massacre, only that it was not long before the wildfire outbreaks.

I knew from other reports that the Santa Ana wind had fueled the November 8 wildfire in Greater Los Angeles, where Thousand Oaks is located. But when exactly had the wind started up around that time? An internet search immediately produced an Accuweather report, Santa Ana wind event in the works across Southern California. The report was dated November 6. So the wind had been blowing on November 7.

I went back to Joan Didion's essay, The Santa Ana, which I'd first read a few days earlier while looking for connections between high-wind events, deforestation, and large wildfires in California. Before the November 8 wildfires I'd known nothing about winds and never been interested in the topic. I'd never had any interest in Joan Didion's writings, either, but a link to The Santa Ana in a report about California's high-wind/wildfire events sent me to her essay.

After a second reading, it sank in that I'd been so focused on velocities I'd overlooked that the Santa Ana is not just a high wind  -- a fact I think also overlooked in 2015 by a reviewer who decried lurid fiction accounts of the Santa Ana. It's a special kind of high wind, known as foehn, and its impact on the human body and psyche has long been known, and was respected before. Before when? 

Before the pace of society demanded that people live by schedules that don't allow for compromising with the rest of the natural world's schedules.

We might not ever know what caused a man who'd served very honorably in the U.S. Marines to shoot unarmed strangers then take his own life. A family shouting incident in April, which brought police to his house, suggested to a mental health expert who interviewed him at that time that he was troubled. But there's not enough information about Ian David Long's life since he left the Marines to know whether he was suffering from PTSD. Even so, if every military veteran with PTSD was driven by the affliction to carry out a shooting rampage, there would be a great many mass shootings. 

A worsening mental disorder of some kind may have brought Long to a point where he turned his talents as a Marine gunner against innocent civilians. Could it have been the Santa Ana blowing on November 7 that finally pushed him over the edge? I doubt the psychiatric profession would want to speculate on the question.

But after my second read of Joan Didion's illuminating essay, I found myself pondering her observation that Santa Ana effects on people show that human behavior is profoundly mechanistic. Is it? Or is it that we insist on acting like machines to keep our places in society, even when an ill wind blows?
The Santa Ana
By Joan Didion
The Saturday Evening Post
(courtesy Bobby Hundreds at Tumblr)

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called “earthquake weather.” My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.

“On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, “every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” 

That was the kind of wind it was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom. The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushers through, is foehn wind, like the foehn of Austria and Switzerland and the hamsin of Israel. 

There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best known of which are the mistral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. 

Whenever and wherever foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about “nervousness,” about “depression.”

In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable. In Switzerland the suicide rate goes up during the foehn, and in the courts of some Swiss cantons the wind is considered a mitigating circumstance for crime. Surgeons are said to watch the wind, because blood does not clot normally during a foehn. 

A few years ago an Israeli physicist discovered that not only during such winds, but for the ten or twelve hours which precede them, the air carries an unusually high ratio of positive to negative ions. No one seems to know exactly why that should be; some talk about friction and others suggest solar disturbances. In any case the positive ions are there, and what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy. One cannot get much more mechanistic than that.

Easterners commonly complain that there is no “weather” at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire. 

At the first prediction of a Santa Ana, the Forest Service flies men and equipment from northern California into the southern forests, and the Los Angeles Fire Department cancels its ordinary non-firefighting routines. The Santa Ana caused Malibu to burn as it did in 1956, and Bel Air in 1961, and Santa Barbara in 1964. In the winter of 1966-67 eleven men were killed fighting a Santa Ana fire that spread through the San Gabriel Mountains.

Just to watch the front-page news out of Los Angeles during a Santa Ana is to get very close to what it is about the place.

The longest single Santa Ana period in recent years was in 1957, and it lasted not the usual three or four days but fourteen days, from November 21 until December 4. 

On the first day 25,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains were burning, with gusts reaching 100 miles an hour. In town, the wind reached Force 12, or hurricane force, on the Beaufort Scale; oil derricks were toppled and people were ordered off the downtown streets to avoid injury from flying objects. On November 22 the fire in the San Gabriels was out of control. 

On November 24 six people were killed in automobile accidents, and by the end of the week the Los Angeles Times was keeping a box score of traffic deaths.

On November 26 a prominent Pasadena attorney, depressed about money, shot and killed his wife, their two sons and himself. On November 27 a South Gate divorcée, twenty-two, was murdered and thrown from a moving car. 

On November 30 the San Gabriel fire was still out of control, and the wind in town was blowing eighty miles an hour. 

On the first day of December four people died violently, and on the third the wind began to break.

It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself. Nathaniel West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust, and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.

– Joan Didion, The Santa Ana (included in “Los Angeles Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem published 1968).

How the Santa Ana Winds Form 

The graphic is from atmospheric scientist Angela Fritz's October 15 report for The Washington Post, Tinder-dry Santa Ana winds spark wildfire threat in Southern California.

By the way I've devised a little formula based on my research into winds, etc. :

massive loss of forest = massive loss of drag-friction = stronger winds = explosive wildfires.

If wind scientists can find any rocket science in that formula they should let me know. But drag-friction is lodged in basic wind science. So if wind scientists find no great disagreement with the formula, then if they can tear themselves away from designing windmills to combat carbon-fuel emissions, they might urge governments and fire officials to invest some time in developing windbreaks to ward off the worst wildfires. I emphasize that these wildfires are called such because they are not forest fires.

The catastrophic fires that struck California on November 8 did not arise in forests. They were shrubland fires, as fire officials term them -- starting as tiny fires in dried brush or grass, and fanned within moments by high winds into fast-moving conflagrations.

Pundita readers who've been following my research on winds and wildfires will recall that I've suggested Californians go on a bamboo-planting spree; this as a stopgap measure while fire officials are debating the best ways to manage forests. Bamboo is a very powerful and fast-growing windbreak that can flourish in any of California's microclimates. Bamboo is just one suggestion for a windbreak, of course; there are surely other good candidates. 

Yet the search for windbreaks won't happen at the official level until fire scientists concede that with a massive loss of drag-friction, forests cannot provide as much windbreak as they did when they covered much of the world.

As to whether and how much the massive loss of forest drag friction has during various periods in history contributed to desertification, drought, and "climate change" -- I consider those to be good questions. Someday, perhaps, climate scientists will consider them, if they can tear themselves away long enough from studying just a single model of how climate works.

For now: of course vegetation will quickly dry out and soil will quickly erode, if buffeted by high winds, and this is whether or not there has been a period of low rainfall. Low or high rainfall, as soon the rain stops and if the winds keeping blowing, that translates to a quick way to make bone-dry tinder. It also translates to soil turned to dust -- as happened in the 1930s in America on the Great Plains aka The Dust Bowl.


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