The Latest on Hurricane Irma

Florida is on alert ahead of Hurricane Irma's arrival this weekend. Residents across almost the entire state are evacuating and preparing for one of the worst storms to threaten in years. Hurricane Irma is still a high-end category 4 storm with destructive 155 mph winds. The storm has been remarkably resilient so far, maintaining its intensity for longer than just about any hurricane we've ever seen in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm will tear through parts of Cuba and the Bahamas before making landfall in southern Florida on Sunday. It's already knocked out power in Puerto Rico and savaged several Caribbean islands, including Barbuda, Antigua, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center shows a hurricane that's been disrupted by its interaction with Cuba and smaller islands nearby, but they're not disrupting it enough to spare Florida from a very strong hurricane. The storm is still teetering on scale-topping category 5 intensity, and it's got plenty of very warm water to trudge through before it makes it to the United States. Meteorologists expect the storm to reach land on Sunday morning with maximum winds greater than 140 mph and slowly track up the entire length of the state before heading into Georgia and beyond.

Hurricane Irma’s forecast track as of 2 PM EDT September 8, 2017.
Hurricane Irma’s forecast track as of 2 PM EDT September 8, 2017.

This is a large hurricane that will have far-reaching impacts. Hurricane force winds currently extend 70 miles away from the center of the storm and tropical storm force winds extend 185 miles from the middle of the eye. Florida is only about 135 miles wide at its widest point, so this storm will easily engulf every part of the state outside of the panhandle. The greatest wind threat exists for the Florida Keys and communities that find themselves under the hurricane's northeastern eyewall. Although the worst conditions will depend on exactly where the hurricane makes landfall, the storm's sheer size ensures that the entire state will feel its full effects.

Irma's track up the entire state is unusual. Many hurricanes hit Florida's Atlantic or Gulf coasts and cross over land, exposing a smaller number of towns and people to strong winds. This hurricane will do what we feared Hurricane Matthew would do last year, but luckily didn't; by following the entire length of the peninsula, Irma will expose tens of millions of people to potentially life-threatening weather conditions in the 36 hours following landfall.

The storm's impacts aren't limited to Florida. Irma will slowly weaken as it travels up the Florida peninsula, but it will still produce strong winds and heavy rain across Georgia, the Carolinas, and parts of the interior southeast through early next week. Heavy rain could lead to flash flooding in some low-lying areas, and the rain will soften the soil and make it easier for winds to topple trees and power lines.

Hurricane Irma has been a weather forecasting success story. We've been following the wave that would become Irma since the middle of August, before it even emerged off the coast of Africa. The storm quickly cranked up in the eastern Atlantic, and we've watched it steadily make its way toward the United States over the past two weeks. Residents in the path of the storm have had ample time to prepare, and it seems to be paying off.

Highways started filling up with evacuees earlier this week, and just about everything is closed. Walt Disney World will close its parks early on Saturday and remain closed on Sunday and Monday—something that's happened fewer than a dozen times in the resort's five decades in operation. Most flights to and from Florida airports will be cancelled ahead of the storm. All schools in the state are closed through Monday.

The preparations leading up to this storm are proof that weather forecasting has made huge improvements over the past couple of decades, and that people in the path of the storm are actually heeding the warnings. The long lead-up to this storm will hopefully limit the number of people hurt once it makes landfall, which is always the ultimate goal of forecasting disasters as great as Hurricane Irma.

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.