Sunday, December 02, 2007

On Coldness

The day I arrived back in Tulita From Fort McPherson in early October, the ground was already blanketed with snow. I was told that it had just fallen the day before I arrived. It hasn’t been above zero degrees Celsius here in Tulita since that day. We have had several heavy snowfalls since. The river is now a frozen mass of ice chunks, and workers are already venturing out on Skidoos to prepare the ice bridge for the winter road.

Last week the temperature dipped to below minus thirty for a few days, before shooting up to minus ten overnight. It struck me how nice minus ten felt after the extreme cold. Most of you living down south rarely feel temperatures as cold as minus thirty on a regular basis. You might think that anything below freezing is cold, but once you become acclimatized to the cold, and as long as you dress properly, you begin to become a connoisseur of the cold. You can judge the difference between zero and minus thirty in the same way you might judge a spring or summer day on the opposite end of the thermometer.

Zero Degrees Celsius to minus 10 - Great weather for walking, even if there is a bit of a breeze. In temperatures down to about minus seven you can comfortably go out without a hat or mitts for 15 minutes or more. It is in this temperature zone that snow is most likely to fall. Snow tends to be wetter and heavier. The sky is usually overcast when it is this warm, the clouds being the cause of the warmer weather.

Minus ten to minus twenty - This is an acceptable cold as long as there is no wind. I enjoy going out on still nights such as this because the air is crisp and the sky is usually clear. It is the best weather for northern lights viewing. Gloves and a hat are a must, but you can take them off for a few minutes without any problems in order to unlock a door or fiddle with the settings on your camera. The snow is dryer and more powdery.

Minus twenty to minus twenty five - This is the threshold between a nice day and a not so nice day. Minus twenty is still bearable. Once it dips below minus twenty, you think twice about going out. If it is minus twenty-five and the air is stilll, it isn’t too bad. But if there is any wind, you feel it. Regardless of the wind, this is the temperature where the air begins to shock your lungs. When I step outside at this temperature, I always let out a short involuntary cough. Although wind makes this temperature feel much worse, the colder it gets, the less likely it is to be windy.

Minus twenty five to minus thirty five - This is where it gets really cold. Gloves are ineffective at this temperature. You need mittens, and you will often put your thumb in with the rest of your fingers. The air is almost always completely still once it gets this cold. Because the air is still, it can be deceiving. You might think you can run outside for just a minute, and at first you might not even feel the cold the way you might on a damp fall day. But within a minute, any exposed skin will begin to ache. Touching anything made of metal can be dangerous and your skin will register a burning sensation. I find that when I’m out in this weather and my face or hands begin to ache, I will begin to feel a slight panic. I think it is a fight or flight mechanism, as if my body knows that I’m in danger. If I’m five minutes away from the house, I will pick up the pace and do anything to cover up exposed skin.

Thirty five and below - Nobody goes outside if they can help it. Even skidoo riders, who insist on joyriding at twenty below and beyond, stay inside. Your truck will not start unless it is plugged in. The air becomes remarkably still. Breathing can be painful. Frostbite can begin within minutes. Even when you are inside, the floor can feel cold and there is a chill that you cannot shake. Keys will break off inside locks at this temperature (or so I have been told). School is cancelled.

All of this assumes you are wearing a down filled parka, long johns, and properly insulated boots. Cotton long johns are only good down to ten below, after that, fleece long johns are a must if you want to feel comfortable.