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Life Before Air Conditioning

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How in the world did people deal with the summer heat without air conditioning? Lots of ways, both time-tested and experimental.

Cooling homes was not the intended purpose when Willis Carrier invented modern air conditioning in 1902. The earliest air conditioners were for industrial quality control; the comfort of the workers was incidental. However, artificial climate control made steel and glass skyscrapers practical. Home air conditioning became widely available after World War II and ushered in the age of suburban tract housing. It also spelled the demise of some old-fashioned architectual details and social customs.

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A look at some of these architectual details, after the jump.

The oldest method of home climate control is living underground. Our cave-dwelling ancestors enjoyed temperatures in the 50s both summer and winter. This dugout house found at Shorpy was both inexpensive to build (but labor-intensive) and cool in the summer. Although no one wants to live in a pit, this method of cooling survived in the use of deep spacious basements, split-level homes, and houses built into a hillside. The lower levels stayed much cooler than modern homes.

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Underground level climate control is still in use, as we see in the extensive underground workplace called Subtropolis. More new buildings are constructed underground, or partially buried, every year.

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The effect of cave living was somewhat duplicated by the use of thick stone, adobe, or traditional brick outer walls. Air conditioning allows the use of cheaper and lighter materials. Thirty years ago, it was unheard of to cancel school due to heat. My school had no air conditioning, but it had thick brick walls, high ceilings, transoms, ceiling fans, and if all else failed, plenty of trees outside to hold classes under. We also walked six miles, uphill both ways. That building is still there, although the school has moved to a new climate-controlled facility. The school pictured is in Hendricks, Minnesota, but resembles the school I attended.

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Rooms with high ceilings benefit from the tendency of heat to rise. If heat gathers in the top third of a room, then a ten-foot ceiling will make a room relatively cooler for most people. Ceiling fans accentuate the effect by pulling air up during the summer, and pushing warmer air down in the winter. Older homes with more than one story took advantage of the stack effect, as open stairwells vented heat upstairs. That's why upper floors were only used at night, with the windows open. Some houses even had a tower or turret to act as a windcatcher or heat exhaust vent.

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Shade trees planted on the east and west sides of a home block the summer sun before it warms the home exterior. They also cool down breezes slightly before they enter the porch area. Awnings and window overhangs provide the same effect, and let more sunshine in during the winter, when the sun hangs lower.

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The front porch was an alternative to hot homes, and became a means of social interaction. If you weren't sitting on your own porch in the cool of the evening, you could stroll the neighborhood and visit other familes sitting on their porch.

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On hot nights, the porch was a cooler place to sleep. Apartment dwellers would sleep on the fire escape when it was unbearably hot indoors. The widespread use of the automobile, television, and air conditioning killed the front porch as a social institution.

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People had other personal methods for keeping cool, such as hanging wet laundry in doorways, sleeping in refrigerated sheets, and keeping one's underwear in the freezer.

Years ago when air conditioning wasn't universal, we were sometimes miserably hot. But "miserable" is a relative term. We didn't know what we were missing, and we were used to it. We were never as miserable as someone in a small modern home built for artificial climate control when the air conditioner fails!

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science
The Coolest Meteorological Term You'll Learn This Week
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Two tropical cyclones orbiting around each other in the northwestern Pacific Ocean on July 25, 2017.
RAMMB/CIRA

What happens when two hurricanes start to invade each other's personal space? It's easy to picture the two hurricanes merging into one megastorm that tears across the ocean with twice the fury of a normal storm, but what really happens is less dramatic (although it is a beautiful sight to spy on with satellites). Two cyclones that get too close to one another start to feel the pull of a force called the Fujiwhara Effect, a term that's all the rage in weather news these days.

The Fujiwhara Effect occurs when two cyclones track close enough to each other that the storms begin orbiting around one another. The counterclockwise winds spiraling around each cyclone force them to participate in what amounts to the world's largest game of Ring Around the Rosie. The effect is named after Sakuhai Fujiwhara, a meteorologist who studied this phenomenon back in the early 1900s.

The extent to which storms are affected by the Fujiwhara Effect depends on the strength and size of each system. The effect will be more pronounced in storms of equal size and strength; when a large and small storm get too close, the bigger storm takes over and sometimes even absorbs its lesser counterpart. The effect can have a major impact on track forecasts for each cyclone. The future of a storm completely depends on its new track and the environment it suddenly finds itself swirling into once the storms break up and go their separate ways.

We've seen some pretty incredible examples of the Fujiwhara Effect over the years. Hurricane Sandy's unusual track was in large part the result of the Fujiwhara Effect; the hurricane was pulled west into New Jersey by a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States. The process is especially common in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, where typhoons fire up in rapid succession during the warmer months. We saw a great example of the effect just this summer when two tropical cyclones interacted with each other a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro pulled a fantastic animated loop of two tropical cyclones named Noru and Kulap swirling around each other at the end of July 2017 a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Typhoon Noru was a small but powerful storm that formed at about the same latitude as Kulap, a larger but much weaker storm off to Noru's east. While both storms were moving west in the general direction of Japan, Kulap moved much faster than Noru and eventually caught up with the latter storm. The Fujiwhara Effect caused Typhoon Noru to stop dead in its tracks, completely reverse its course and eventually perform a giant loop over the ocean. Typhoon Noru quickly strengthened and became the dominant cyclone; the storm absorbed Kulap and went on to become a super typhoon with maximum winds equivalent to a category 5 hurricane.

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Kelly Gorham
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Space
Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse
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Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

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