Sex And The Snowed-In Cities: Why This Blizzard Could Cause A Baby Bump

Jan 23, 2016
Originally published on January 23, 2016 7:31 pm

Forgive us if you've heard this (and heard it, and heard it) already: The East Coast is getting its fair share of snow this weekend.

If you have, chances are you've also heard another little anecdote. When folks get snowed in for a couple of days — the urban legend goes — the population in that area is likely to see a boost in births just nine months later. In other words: Blizzards might be prime baby-making time.

Well, it turns out there's some truth to that — and the phenomenon may not be limited just to snow storms.

"With low-level, low-severity storm advisories, we actually found an uptick in births nine months later. So, it was about a 2 percent increase with tropical storm watches," Richard Evans, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University, tells NPR's Michel Martin.

In 2008, together with Yingyao Hu and Zhong Zhao, Evans published what's considered the most definitive study yet on how catastrophic events affect birth rates. Prompted by anecdotal evidence around catastrophies — from the New York City blackout of 1965 to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — they decided to conduct broader, more substantive research into the phenomenon. They compared storm advisory data with fertility data on the East Coast and regions of the Gulf Coast, looking especially at differences in severity.

And those differences in severity impacted their results. The bump in births didn't hold true across the board.

"The other thing we found — that is also intuitive, but no one had ever detected this before — was that, with the most severe storm warnings ... you get almost an equal decrease in births nine months later," Evans says. "And the story there is if you're running for your life, you can't make babies."

Still, Evans says this snow storm in particular may be of the baby-making variety.

"I think the blizzard that's hitting the East Coast right now is more like a low-severity storm advisory — in the sense that, for the most part, people are not being asked to evacuate, they're not running," he says. "They're just told to hunker down in their houses for the duration of the storm until everything can get plowed and back to normal."

And as the danger diminishes, what else remains?

"If the lights go out and there's no TV, it kind of sets the table for romance, and you get births nine months later."

There's also been another funny effect of all this. Since he published the report, Evans has found himself typecast as that one guy who published a report on storms and fertility. And that's made him awfully popular among the major media organizations — especially for a scholar who usually focuses on macroeconomics and tax policy.

"I have other things that people really want to talk to me about, but this is one that keeps coming back and I can't get away from. It's a result of some really good datawork — testing an effect that was interesting — but then, it's just this topic that's irresistible by the press," he says.

"You get hurricanes and sex, and I am the guy for that — either fortunately or unfortunately."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So if you live in one of those places that gets snowed in from time to time, then you've probably heard the urban legend about what happens when everybody's snowed in for a couple of days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")

MARTIN: Nine months later, babies. It turns out that this may not be a legend after all, and the phenomenon may not be limited to snowstorms. Richard Evans is a professor of economics at Brigham Young University. In 2007, he conducted what's considered the most definitive study yet of how catastrophic events affect birthrates. He was nice enough to go to the studios at BYU to give us the bottom line on this vitally important question.

Professor Evans, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RICHARD EVANS: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So you've studied a whole range of catastrophic events - for example, hurricanes and blackouts. So is it true? Are more babies born after a storm?

EVANS: Yeah, that's what we found in our study that we did early in the 2000s. There was some old studies on the New York City blackout of 1965, and then even some stuff about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. And so we had different severities, different geographic locations over a long time period. We thought it was a great laboratory to test whether there was this fertility effect.

MARTIN: So what is the fertility affect?

EVANS: All right. So the result that everybody loves is that with kind of low-level, low-severity storm advisories, we actually found an uptick in births 9 months later. So it was about a 2 percent increase with tropical storm watches. The story there is if the lights go out and there's no TV, it kind of sets the table for romance. And you get births 9 months later. But the other thing we found that is also intuitive, but no one had ever detected this before - was that with the most severe storm warnings - so a hurricane warning - you get almost an equal decrease in births 9 months later. And the story there is if you're running for your life, you can't make babies.

MARTIN: What about snowstorms?

EVANS: So I think the blizzard that's hitting East Coast right now is more like a low-severity storm advisory in the sense that, for the most part, people are not being asked to evacuate. And so people are going to be in their houses this weekend, and they're going to be riding out this storm. And the storm may knock-out television and electricity. And that seems to be the conditions that generates more babies.

And I think it kind of touches a broader topic, especially the research about the Oklahoma City bombing, that when there are events that bring people together and make people think about their longevity not just for romance reasons - just for, like, your own existential reasons, people turn more towards fertility and preserving the species.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, can I ask, though - I understand that you don't really focus on this subject anymore, that you are, you know, doing other things. You have a number of sub-specialties that you sort of focus on. However, is this like one of those roles that you can't get away from? I mean, for example - I mean, is this the thing that people really want to talk to you about?

EVANS: So I have other things that people really want to talk to me about, but this is one that keeps coming back and I can't get away from. And it's just this topic that is irresistible by the press. You get hurricanes and sex, and I am the guy for that, either fortunately or unfortunately. I mean, I do macroeconomics and tax policy. But this one, whenever there's a storm on the East Coast, it keeps coming back.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's Rick Evans. He's a professor of economics at Brigham Young University, and he was nice enough to join us from the studios there. Professor Evans, thanks so much for speaking with us.

EVANS: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And we'll be sure to call you about tax policy, too.

EVANS: (Laughter) Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.