Ifelt pretty sure something was wrong when the deer began running toward me. I knew something was wrong when a pine branch flew by my head. The air went dark and a noise like a train barreled through the forest, the actual wind coming after the sound of itself. The trees all swayed in the same direction, and then came the slap of thunder.
I felt more than saw the huge shelf cloud, a wall of black striped with electricity, surge forward over the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains overlooking Green Bank, West Virginia. A sharp line against the blue sky, it looked less like weather and more like a Rothko. I lived in this remote town, and I was on my usual afternoon run, picking my way across the trails that led from my house to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I worked. Adrenaline told me I needed to fly, faster.
I ran two miles in 12 minutes, a pace I’d never maintained before and never have since, hurdling downed trees and power lines. When I got back to my house, surprised to be safe, I dragged my dog down to the farmhouse basement. After a restless 30 seconds, though, I bolted back upstairs, threw the door open, and stood on the porch. A wall of wind hit me. Lightning struck like a strobe. I felt awakened, alive, engaged. As the edge of the front pushed forward, the force seemed to clear the air and charge the whole scene with yellow-lit significance.
I’m not the first to feel this way, or write about it. “It was his impression that not just he but other people too felt better in hurricanes,” wrote Walker Percy in his novel The Last Gentleman, published in 1966. Today, people crowd around Weather Channel broadcasts and cross their fingers that storms will strengthen. They get giddy over thundersnow. Percy, a philosopher as well as a novelist, was intrigued by the phenomenon. In one of his earliest essays, published in the 1950s, he asked, “Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?”
Why hurricanes elevate our mood—lift us out of a malaise we might not even know we’re sunk in—is a rich question for philosophers, novelists, and people who like philosophy and novels. It’s deepened by the fact that our giddiness often comes spiked with guilt, and a revulsion at ourselves for hoping for, and enjoying, something so destructive.
But the thrill of storms may not just be a psychological phenomenon. A branch of science called biometeorology attempts to explain the impact of atmospheric processes on organisms and ecosystems. Biometeorologists study, among other topics, how the seasons affect plant growth, how agriculture depends on climate, and how weather helps spread or curb human diseases. For decades now, a faction have looked at how charged particles in the air, called ions, might alter our psyches as they wing in on the wind.
Explanations of the environment’s impact on us sometimes crash at the intersection of science and pseudoscience. The idea that electrically charged molecules affect humans has led to dubious cures like negative air-ionizing therapy. But recent, rigorous studies have hinted at compelling links between ions, physiology, and psychology. The collision of that work with the science of storms could bear a message of connection for us all.
Scientists first attempted to unweave the web between air ions—whose composition changes with weather and environment—and human mood in the mid 20th century, when ion-generating machines and ion counters became more standardized and available. Ions, natural or ginned up inside a device, are electrically charged particles: Negative ions have an extra electron, and positive ions are missing an electron. Positive ions get their spark when some force—like the scrape of air over land or shear from water droplets splashing—strips an electron from them. That electron goes on the rebound and attaches itself to a nearby oxygen molecule, which then becomes a negative ion.
In the wild, people encounter the greatest densities of negative air ions in pleasant, hydrated places and during summer months. Breaking ocean waves and falling water—dropping from the sky or flowing over a rock ledge—release a rash of negatives into the air. So do bolts of lightning. Positive ions—often associated with pollutant particles like smoke, smog, and dust—are more prevalent indoors, in urban areas, and in the winter. The leading edges of storms and hot, dry winds like the Santa Anas in California also blow them in.
Lightning struck like a strobe. I felt awakened, alive, engaged.
Medical doctor Daniel Silverman of New Orleans and Igho Kornblueh of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia were first to test whether the shifting tides of ions do anything to the human body or mind. Is either polarity good or bad, or are they both neutral? In 1957, they gave subjects 30-minute treatments with air ions from ion-generating devices.
During the treatment, Silverman and Kornblueh watched patients’ electrical brain activity on electroencephalograms. Their long, slow, alpha waves looked calm and relaxed when they were surrounded by negative ions, positive ones, or both at once (not exactly conclusive). Another research group later confirmed chilled-out brain activity and sharper perception, when they treated patients with negative air ions. Their results weren’t definitive, but three other studies in the ’50s and ’60s looked at how ions changed self-reported perceptions of comfort and restlessness. According to this research, some subjects felt negative feelings with positive ions, and some reported positive feelings with negative ions…