Tuesday 18 September 2018

Helter swelter - ‘As temperatures rise, the chance of there being riots increases’

With a weather warning upon us, Alex Meehan looks at the knock-on effects of a heatwave, from its impact on our shopping habits to relationships

Fun in the sun: Savannah (6) and Maddison Bradley (5) play on the beach. Sunshine helps
boost people’s mood with the production of serotonin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fun in the sun: Savannah (6) and Maddison Bradley (5) play on the beach. Sunshine helps boost people’s mood with the production of serotonin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Alex Meehan

Is there anything shorter than the average Irish person's attention span when it comes to the weather? A national obsession, we're no sooner wishing for a change in the weather to arrive before we're wishing it away.

This time around it's a proper certified heatwave - five days or more of temperatures over 25C - and for a lucky few that means taking to the beach, drinks in the sun and proper holidays at home.

For everyone else though, it means sweating through work, not being able to sleep properly at night and trying to figure out how the air conditioning in the car actually works. It's time to look at the effects this kind of heat has on the Irish.

The economy

Spare a thought for all those retailers who can expect to take a bit of a battering for the next week or so. When there's a major change in the weather, shopping is one of the first activities to go - unless the shop happens to stock speciality goods not otherwise in much demand throughout the year.

"Contrary to what a lot of people think, the sun isn't always good for retail. When it's sunny out, consumers gravitate towards their gardens and head to the beaches or lakes.

"The result is that there's less footfall on the high street. People also prioritise purchasing certain products over others," says Lorraine Higgins, Chief Executive Designate of Retail Excellence Ireland, which represents retailers around the country.

Top performer: TV viewing figures drop in summer but sport does well all year round. Photo: REUTERS
Top performer: TV viewing figures drop in summer but sport does well all year round. Photo: REUTERS

And it's not just bricks and mortar shops that suffer - the hot weather also means people are spending far more time away from their phones and computers, so online shopping also takes a battering.

"People are less likely to shop online in this kind of weather, and that has a negative effect for retailers that offer this service," says Higgins. "That said, grocery retail is faring well at the moment and there is some demand among clothing retailers for summer or beach wear."

Retail Excellence Ireland reports that agri-retail and garden centres are also doing very well, with barbecue sales hitting record highs. And it seems we are also conscious of making sure our gardens are looking presentable for those outdoor gatherings we may be planning, with plant and flower sales on the up as we divert our attention to the outside of our homes.

The national psyche

If you're one of those people who seems to always be in a better mood when the sun shines, you're not alone and you're not imagining the connection.

Violence: The London riots of 2011 took place during a very hot summer
Violence: The London riots of 2011 took place during a very hot summer

Summer sunshine is measurably good for your mood, and seasonal affective disorder - in which a lack of sunlight has a negative effect on people's mental health - is a real issue affecting many people. It turns out there is a direct link between exposure to sunlight and the production of serotonin, the so-called happy hormone, in the brain.

When sunlight hits special areas of the retina, it triggers the release of this hormone, which is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused. And it doesn't hurt that sunny weather encourages people to do more socialising and spend more time outdoors, both of which also make us feel better.

"However, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. If you suddenly get a lot more sunshine than normal, you can get a lot of serotonin dumped into the brain and your levels rise too quickly - this can tip people over into being irritable and aggressive," says Dr Lance Workman, a psychologist from the University of South Wales who has studied the connection between weather and behaviour extensively.

"If you get one or two sunny days, people walk around with a spring in their step. If you get six or seven, people commonly adopt a 'when is this ever going to end?' mentality. We're not well adapted to long periods of good weather."

Relationships

Despite the fact that honeymooners traditionally make for the sun to celebrate their love, it seems that sunshine isn't especially conducive to procreation.

In particular, a glance at the Central Statistics Office Yearbook tells us that the most popular time of year for Irish babies to be born is September and October, which means that traditionally the majority of the nation's conceptions happen in January and February each year.

While there might be more skin on display in hot weather and less clothing being worn, that doesn't automatically turn into more opportunities for loving - or at least it doesn't result in more conception taking place than at other times of the year.

The most popular birthday of 2017 was October 1 and the most fertile day of the year - one to take note of if you're trying for a baby, or avoiding a pregnancy - was January 1. So it turns out all those 'new year, new you' magazine articles aren't that far off the mark after all.

TV viewing figures

The summer is never traditionally any good for watching the box, with most of the major studios reserving their top TV series and Oscar-worthy movies for the autumn and winter when the evenings are longer and audiences are more prone to be captured. However, the effect is less dramatic than you might think.

"People tend to view less TV in the summer than in the winter, but not by much. In the winter we watch around three hours, 36 minutes a day per person, and in the summer that only drops to three hours, 10 minutes a day," says Jill McGrath, Chief Executive of Television Audience Measurement (TAM) Ireland.

All the biggest TV programmes are kept for the autumn and winter but that's not because people are watching that much less.

"Viewing is still incredibly strong in the summer. Sport does well all year, yet the sport itself might change - rugby in the winter, soccer in the summer and GAA from July through to September," says McGrath.

And the number one show last week on Irish TV? You guessed it, the weather.

"People are fascinated by the weather and when there's talk of an unusual weather event, you can get over a million people tuning in."

Public unrest

Heatwaves can make for inflamed tempers as well as raised temperatures, and recent history isn't short of examples. The London riots of 2011 coincided with an unseasonably hot summer, as did the 1967 race riots in the US and police forces in countries that experience hot summers often find that there is a spike in crime when the weather is unusually hot and humid.

"We know that as temperatures rise, the chance of there being riots increases. We know from studies in the US for example that when the temperature hits between 27C and 32C, which is about where it will be in Ireland this week, the chance of a riot happening goes up with each degree that the heat increases by," says Dr Workman.

"Once you get above 32C though, the effect seems to stop and it's almost as if people are too hot to be bothered.

"But there is a relationship between temperature and the chances of people acting aggressively.

"When it's hot and the days are long, people tend to congregate outdoors, tend to drink more alcohol and you're more likely to get violence if people are in a group than if they're hanging around on their own."

Irish Independent

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