Violent Heat Waves: The Mysterious Science Of Weather And Moods

19/03/2016 6:07 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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A female wearing a white dress is floating in a forest. There is a strong light source just above her.

There's a madness in heat. You feel it at 4am when the heavy air blankets your sweaty, fidgeting form. No sleep. No relief. No mercy.

Across the country, a hotter-than-average summer lingers, with localised spikes in violence being blamed on the relentless heat.

As weather systems the size of the state swirl above, what effect does a prolonged heatwave or a maddening wind have on our mental health?

This Shakespearean concept of hot days and inescapable brawls, where "mad blood stirring" is backed up by a small kernel of truth, but be warned; University of Technology Sydney research fellow Jonathan Marshall said those who wanted an excuse for chaos would surely see it in the weather.

"There's a long tradition of attributing people's behaviour to the weather like the the Mistral winds blowing in and driving everyone mad and that sort of thing," Marshall told The Huffington Post Australia.

"We think in terms of weather for our emotions -- we're hot under the collar, we're feeling snowed in, we're flooded with work. We have grown up with stories of stormy castles and floods of emotion.

"This long tradition doesn't mean it's true, but it doesn't mean it's not true either."

A 2006 study correlating 13 years of hospital admissions and heatwave data in Adelaide found a heat-linked spike in mental health concerns, assault and the more explainable dehydration-related renal conditions.

The study showed an increase of 13 percent in assault-related injuries among people aged 15-64 and total mental health-related hospital admissions increased by 7 percent during hotter conditions.

Then there's a Spanish study showing car accidents were 2.9 percent more frequent during heat waves.

For Adrian Barnett, of the Queensland University of Technology School of Public Health and Social Work, a relationship between accidents and heat is more easily backed up than some sort of atmospheric madness.

"I’m a statistics epidemiology person and there are some diseases that are closely affected by the weather, like salmonella poisoning, but there are theories around tiredness and simply not functioning as well in the heat," Barnett told HuffPost Australia.

"I'm part of a project with a large trial looking at whether workplace accidents increase in the heat. It's a similar question -- do people function as well in hot conditions? Are they more likely to make careless mistakes or not be concentrating?"

Maddening winds or not, Barnett said it was an area that warranted further study because the weather affected everyone, and a warming globe would exacerbate any problems we currently observed.

"The risks of heat exposure are small at an individual level but what happens with the weather is everyone gets exposed it multiplies a small risk into a big issue."

For Marshall, a storm is approaching that rumbles within us.

"Perhaps we're focusing on the weather because we don't want to talk about climate change," Marshall said.

"It's easier to talk about one hot day or a particularly bad storm than to face the more frightening issue of a warming climate.

"Perhaps the storm is internal, not external."

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