Not the Heat but the Humidity

12 Jul
Cloudy sky

Cloudy sky over Penn State University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Today it is overcast, but not raining.  At least not yet.  It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.

Not so the past three weeks.  We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day.  One day it hailed.  The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now.  On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times.  And it hasn’t been just the rain.  Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain.  It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.

July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual.  The normal range of jokes is circulating.  Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere.  But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way.  No harm no foul, right?

Two students with backpacks from the back with umbrellas walking together in the rain

Two students walk in the rain on the University Park campus of Penn State. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute.  However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.

I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process.  A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls.  During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production.  We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”

Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity.  This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres.  During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them.  Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of  research.

This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air.  A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside.  Some chemical reactions are affected.  Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.

However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered.  Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable.  Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required.  So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.

Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.

Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.

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