How to de­scribe what it feels like to be in a hur­ri­cane

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Daniel Glaser

Re­cent re­ports of the ter­ri­fy­ing weather events in the Caribbean and US have ex­posed us to in­stances of hu­mans try­ing to de­scribe a hur­ri­cane wind (many would ar­gue that get­ting main­stream US me­dia to cover the causes rather than the ef­fects of ex­treme weather would be a great ad­van­tage).

The Saf­fir-Simp­son hur­ri­cane scale de­scribes the ef­fects on struc­tures and peo­ple, but not what it would feel like. Hear­ing is the sense most fre­quently in­voked, with winds sound­ing like a train or a low howl.

Clearly wind de­tec­tion is not one of the five clas­si­cal senses. It is only re­cently that the anatomy of wind de­tec­tion in the fruit fly has been dis­cov­ered. Wind gen­er­ates vi­bra­tions which are gen­er­ally pro­cessed like touch, but it seems that for in­sects at least, it’s the hear­ing cir­cuits that are best placed to de­code th­ese sig­nals.

Of course, the most ba­sic re­sponse to th­ese events is fear and awe. Our brain gen­er­ates the fear and that trig­gers the gut, which feeds back to the brain. The sen­sa­tion is re­ally part of an in­di­rect loop. If the hur­ri­cane struck your body di­rectly that would be a very dif­fer­ent story.

Dr Daniel Glaser is di­rec­tor of Sci­ence Gallery at King’s Col­lege Lon­don

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