How cold is cold?SAM COOK: Things begin to change at 20 below. Little things.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
Things begin to change at 20 below. Little things.
Storm doors and hatchbacks lose resistance in their pneumatic cylinders. Car seats become unnaturally firm. The dog holds an occasional paw off the ground on her evening walk.
Cold is relative. In Duluth, where we benefit from the balmy open waters of Lake Superior, 20 below is cold. We consider it cold because it’s a lot colder than the weather we’ve grown accustomed to. And, to be honest, it’s pretty brisk. Especially if there’s any kind of a northwest wind shoving that 20-below air around.
But it isn’t 38 below, as the people in Babbitt have experienced a couple of times this week, or the 42 below that Embarrass saw. Twenty below in Babbitt and Embarrass probably doesn’t seem so harsh.
“Once you get below zero, it doesn’t matter. It’s all cold,” some people say.
That may seem true if you’re just trotting from the car to the grocery store. But it isn’t true. Ask the person who burns wood to heat a home. Or watch your gas meter spin on a 38-below-zero night. Or try to fire up a campstove at 22 below when its tiny O-rings have shrunken with cold. We tried it one evening up on Nym Lake in Ontario. Flames shot pretty high into the night.
In the past few days, I had gotten to thinking that 20 below was cold. Then I read a blog post from my friend Dave Olesen, a writer and bush pilot who lives with his family on Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
His blog entry of Jan. 18 was titled “Deep Cold.” If you wonder where Minnesota’s Arctic air is coming from, it is coming from the Olesens’ front yard. When he posted that essay to his blog, the previous few days’ temperatures had been from 40 to 45 below — Celsius. Forty-five below Celsius is close to 50 below Fahrenheit.
“During the day it crept up to minus 40,” Olesen wrote, “and minus 39 yesterday.”
As real cold sets in up there, Olesen and his family, all dog mushers, must alter their routines. At 30 below, the Alaskan huskies need fresh spruce boughs or straw in their houses, he says. Wood-cutting switches from chainsaw to bow saw.
At 40 below, he writes, “A fire must be built every morning in the workshop to keep the place at about -15 without making a huge dent in the diesel bill.” At minus 42, all running of dogs ceases. At minus 50 (about minus 58F.), “Every move outdoors is like suiting up for a spacewalk,” Olesen writes.
He remembers the first time he ventured out at minus 52 Celsius.
“All I could hear was a strange sighing sound, rhythmic and pervasive,” he writes. “I thought it was the snow settling around me, and I was puzzled. Then I realized it was my breath, crystallizing instantly with each exhalation.”
How cold is “cold?”