For the week of December 30, 1998   thru January 5, 1999  

It’s arid, extra dry

Express Staff Writer

Winter in the Wood River Valley brings with it the usual warnings from health professionals about dry skin and dehydration. Heaters, hotter showers, and, of course, wind exposure during outdoor pursuits, we are told, are to blame.

But the real culprit is aridity, the dryness of the air.

Although water is seemingly everywhere in the Wood River Valley--clinging to the mountains, spewing from springs, carving through the valley--there is a lack of moisture in the air. In fact, the Wood River Valley sits in a dry, desert region known as the Great Basin. It is high desert.

Wood River Valley aridity is caused primarily by the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains, which wring out Pacific storms on their journey east.

Meteorologist Ken Parker from the National Weather Service in Boise explains.

"As air flow hits the mountains from the west, it rises. As it rises, it cools. Cooler air holds less moisture. So the moisture falls out as precipitation—as rain or snow--on the west or windward side of the mountains."

That phenomenon of rising air, called the orographic effect, results in dry air flowing down the leeward side of the ranges onto our doorsteps.

When we open our doors and breathe in that delicious mountain air, it feels good and crisp in the lungs, but as dry as it is, it dehydrates.

Irene Healy, physics and chemistry teacher at Wood River High School, calls this "insensible water loss."

"Without knowing it, we lose moisture every time we exhale," Healy said. "And here, when we inhale, we take in dry air and the moisture is not returned."

We also feel the dryness on our skin.

"This is the most skin-unfriendly place," said Ketchum dermatologist Dr. Lindie Borton.

Borton suggests taking shorter showers, using fragrance-free soaps and a good emollient, like DML Forte cream, which has no irritating fragrances or lanolin.

Nutrition can help return moisture to the skin, according to naturopathic physician Dr. Scott Freeborn.

"I recommend a diet inclusive of essential fatty acids, which are integral to the production of oils in the skin," Freeborn said. "Supplements of flax oil and evening primrose oil help."

Also, he said, Vitamin A, often called the "beauty vitamin," can help restore mucous membranes.

Sun Valley Ski Team coach Ryan Dean, who is on Bald Mountain most days of the week, is no stranger to the valley’s dryness and the problems it poses.

"We’re constantly dealing with dry skin," he said. "It’s the cracked finger tips that bother me the most. The tips crack. They bleed. And then they hurt like hell."

Dean’s remedy for the cracked tips is to apply Superglue as a kind of suture.

But the most important trick for high desert dwellers is to replenish the body with fluids.

Just as local plants adapt to the aridity by evolving as water-retaining bunches, humans must adapt by re-hydrating. This is important even if we are inactive, since we are essentially dehydrating ourselves whenever we breathe here.


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