Science Questions

How can humidity make us both hot and cold?

Sat, 30th Oct 2010

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Question

@monozuky asked:

In summer, air humidity has us feel hotter as there's less evaporation. In winter, it works to feel colder. Why is it opposite?

Answer

Dave -   Quite a lot of this effect is down to the fact that if the air is very humid, itís likely to also be drizzling - thereís actually droplets of water in there that will drop on your skin and then itíll evaporate, and that make you feel very, very cold.  Also, I think water vapour will have a slightly higher specific heat capacity, it will be able to absorb slightly more energy per unit volume than normal air, because itís a more complicated molecule so it can vibrate in more exciting different ways so it can absorb more energy as it warms up.  Whereas when itís warm, if itís very, very high humidity, sweating doesnít work anymore because water doesnít evaporate very well and you feel very warm.

Chris -   So on a cold day, if you've got air which has got a bit of water in it and itís cold, you got to supply a lot of energy to that wet air to make it get any hotter.  Therefore, itís always going to feel a bit colder, isnít it...

Dave -   Yes.

Chris -   ...Then in summer when the water is already saturating the air because of high humidity, and you're trying to sweat to lose the energy, and you can't lose the heat quick enough.  So itís two slightly different things going on which is why you've actually got the difference.

Dave -   Of course in this country as well, it tends to be windier when itís wet, just because of the way the weather works.  So, you get wind chill added on top of that.  I think windchill is probably bigger when itís low humidity than the high humidity but I think itís windier when itís damp.

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