Why Is the Southeast So Humid?

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iStock

You don’t have to hop on a plane to visit the tropics when you live in the southeastern United States—it can often feel like you’re already there. It gets humid in this corner of the country. Not just regular humid, mind you, but so disgustingly moist that you can almost feel the air slosh across your skin as you walk out the front door. But what is it that makes the Southeast so humid compared to the rest of the country?

Mugginess during the summer is a problem just about everywhere you go in the United States. The corn fields of Iowa can see a higher dew point than a rainforest. But even there the steaminess doesn’t last as long as it does in the Southeast. Much of it has to do with the region’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, which usually feels like bathwater on a good day. The water in some parts of the Gulf of Mexico can heat up to 90°F during the peak of the summer, and the water isn’t quick to cool down once cold fronts start sweeping through in the fall and winter. The warmth of the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea to its south keep moisture in plentiful supply.

It’s not just the water itself that contributes to the mugginess. The water vapor over the ocean doesn’t migrate inland on its own—weather patterns drag it inland and keep it locked in place. Strong winds blowing counterclockwise around low-pressure systems often help bring this tropical moisture inland, especially during the cooler months when you expect to shiver rather than sweat. During the summer, though, persistent ridges of high pressure keep the southeast feeling gross with a moist southerly wind. These “heat domes” deflect most weather systems approaching from the west, basically locking the Southeast into a state of sultriness for weeks and even months at a time.

The constant moisture isn’t merely uncomfortable—it can be downright dangerous. The human body is able to cool itself when sweat evaporates from the surface of exposed skin. But sweat has a harder time evaporating when there’s too much moisture in the air, which could cause a person to overheat. This phenomenon is measured with the heat index, and it’s the cause of thousands of heat-related illnesses and deaths every year.

All of that moisture makes both day and night downright miserable. If you’ve ever been to the desert during the warmer months, you know firsthand that even on a day when the high temperature exceeds 100°F, the mercury can plummet once the Sun goes down and get chilly enough to require a light jacket. The wild temperature fluctuations in desert regions are due to the dryness of the air there. Moist air has a higher heat capacity, so it takes a lot longer to warm up and cool off.

Meanwhile, the gross humidity levels in the Southeast on most days keep it from getting excessively hot, but it also keeps the nights from cooling off very much. The lack of nighttime relief compounds the danger posed by heat and humidity.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

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iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

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