Monday, January 30, 2012

HARD, COLD TRUTHS – Unlocking Winter's Wonders Part Two: Betcha Can’t Lick That Fence Post

Here's the second of my three-part mini-series on the hard-won 
wonders of winter.


There’s a whole library of winter folklore up here on what we only half-jokingly call Minnesota's frozen tundra. Most of the tales involve some combination of extreme cold, a creative imagination and utter stupidity.

Lots of interesting stuff happens when the temperature outside drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit; for one thing, stuff freezes. But take it down another 50 degrees or so, and things really get weird.

For example, the air gets really thick. You can't really see it, but you can hear it: an airplane sounds like it's on approach for landing, but you look up and see that it's still at 20,000 feet. Ever noticed how well some sounds travel through water? It's kind of like that.

If you take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up into the air, something amazing happens. Instead of dropping to the ground, the stuff explodes into frozen vapor, hissing as if you'd poured it on a white hot grill.

PHOTO: Sparky Stensaas - The Photo Naturalist

One night a few years ago, the temperature in Tower MN reached minus 60 . (That’s the thermometer temperature, not the wind-chill index.) When the forecast came out, people flocked up there from all over the state to camp out that night. As far as we know, everyone survived with most of their digits intact.

I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I dis-
covered the unmistakeable pattern of taste buds.

When I was in grade school, I was walking home one January afternoon. When I came to a chain-link fence I passed nearly every day I noticed something different on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the unmistakable pattern of taste buds.

It was a quarter-inch-square piece of some poor kid’s tongue. Everyone around here knows the story, but you never believe it really happens; you think it’s just part of the mythology. But I know—and, more poignantly, that gullible kid knows—it’s true.

Playing hockey outdoors before indoor rinks were common was like a lesson in physics. Steel on ice—the latter seeming equally hard at these temperatures—one gliding effortlessly not on the other, but on a thin film of water. Rubber pucks, their molecular structure transformed by the cold, shattering like some ceramic when they hit the goalpost just right.

We'd fail to notice the exact moment when 
the moderate discomfort of cold toes faded to numbness.

In a lesson more in physiology than physics, we Minnesotans learn at a young age about the price of exposure to minus-50 wind-chills. Most of us have, at one time or another, laced our ice skates a little too tightly when playing outdoors. Then we'd get so involved in learning to skate, stick-handling a puck or showing off to girls that we'd fail to notice the exact moment when the moderate discomfort of cold toes faded to numbness.

PHOTO: T. Jacobs / Science Photo Library
But that's the point at which the die is cast. Even if you're lucky enough not to lose a toe or two, when warm blood starts seeping back into all those frozen capillaries you're in for what will likely be the worst pain of your young life.

Ah, yes, the tales—and the wonders—of a Minnesota winter. I'm sure some of you have your own. If you're sitting under a palm tree somewhere, bathed in luscious ocean breezes, with nothing more to worry about than which SPF to slather on, c'mon, you know you're envious.


Debi said...

If it's any consolation, those of us sitting out here under the palm trees have all had to contend with at least one very seriously painful sun burn. I know you're envious. :-)

Jennifer H said...

Yes, I'm envious. I remember it didn't matter how cold it got in MN, I could still go outside for a walk. Today is the 3rd day in a row that I've had to stay indoors and it's only 30 F, but there's snow and ice and since winter storms are infrequent, there's no shoveling, etc. That on top of the uneven and unfinished sidewalks, it makes for very treacherous conditions. Thankfully, I enjoy reading and your blog is delicious.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Debi -- Oh, like that's supposed to make me feel better? ;-)
Seriously, if I complain about winter, it's only in jest. I really do try to find the beauty and joy in just about climate. I know you do too. Have a perfect day!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jennifer, my good old friend -- how are you? I see Azerbaijan's at about the same latitude as Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and that the country has nine distinct climate zones. So you're in one for which this cold, snowy winter is rare?
Are prevailing winds such that you're up-weather from the Caspian, or down?

Jennifer H said...

Hey, I see you've been doing some research on my country. It's amazing - you can cover most of the 9 regions in one day by car. You can drive for hours and never see a tree and then voila you're in a forest.

Baku is right on the Caspian Sea - don't know if we're up or down from winds. What I do know is that at times the wind howls for hours on end and it's strong enough to lift me off the ground. It's great to lie in bed and just listen to the sound.

Yep, snow happens in this area about once each winter and is gone within a day. This time, due to low temperatures it lingered, plus with a little rain, it froze. Up in the Caucasus mountain area, they have lots of snow.

Anyhow, I went out today and it was refreshing.
All's well here.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jennifer -- In MN this year it's the winter that wasn't. Record high temps, about 1/5 of last winter's snow total to this point.
Maybe this is why I'm feeling like extolling the wonders of the kind of winters I remember.
Glad to hear you're doing well, my friend!

Emily Brisse said...

I loved this! As a fellow Minnesotan (although I'm a bit more south than you), this rung true for me in many ways. "The sound of cold." That sounds like the perfect title for a poem. :) Glad I found your blog.!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Emily -- Thanks for your nice comments and for subscribing.
I checked out your great Landing On Cloudy Water blog too, and am now your newest fan. Nice job! (Comment left there too.)

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