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Frigid fun facts and other subzero silver linings

<p>Snow&nbsp;drifts over the Dupage River in&nbsp;Naperville&nbsp;on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. | Mike Mantucca / For Sun-Times Media &nbsp;</p>

Snow drifts over the Dupage River in Naperville on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014. | Mike Mantucca / For Sun-Times Media  

Half a lifetime ago, when we still lived in Montana, my mate and I spent a school year living in the basement of a lovely old bungalow on a tree-lined street in Bozeman. We were young and in love, so perhaps it didn’t matter to us that the temperature in that subterranean dwelling never, as I recall, rose above about 40 degrees.

We’re no longer young, and we no longer live in a basement, but I’m grateful that we know how to avoid freezing to death. And I’m uber appreciative of the high-performance furnace that’s been putting in overtime in our lovely old house, here in the walk-in freezer of the nation.

It’s true that we changed the record books this week, when Monday brought temperatures of 16 below zero. It was the coldest air we’ve seen on Jan. 6 for at least as long as we’ve been keeping track of such things. The outside remained mercilessly, bone-numbingly in the negative range for an agonizing 37 hours, two-thirds of them two digits subzero. At least that round is over.

By the time you read this, the icicles will likely be dripping and the snowbanks shrinking. That’s a good thing; a little better visibility at driveways and side-street intersections will make driving a bit less harrowing. And the ability to step outside without donning 15 layers of warmth is always a welcome change.

Still, there were intriguing takeaways to this most recent demonstration of Mother Nature’s quirky bad self. For one thing, we all added terms like polar vortex to our weather lexicon. And we saw that even after a couple of days of really good, really thorough plowing citywide, a stout and brutal wind can promptly resubmerge Naperville’s streets in snow and black ice, making driving a tricky proposition.

Some of us, perhaps falling prey to our own substandard judgment, also learned that water freezes really, really fast on a cold day — and learned it the hard way. Chances are you saw at least one video of hot water being flung into the frigid air, almost immediately freezing while airborne. One published report tallied more than four dozen reports on social media of people having burned themselves or their friends in the course of performing this trick. Apparently several of them required hospital treatment.

We found out that a vortex can come with a stunning price tag, too. Some estimates run as high as $5 billion for this one. Think lost productivity in the workplace, less shopping, cancelled vacations and (gulp) those heating bills that will soon turn up in the mailbox.

Another frigid fun fact: there’s such a thing as too cold for polar bears. Apparently Anana, a bear at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, had to stay inside Monday because she lacks the whale blubber in her diet that gives her outdoor-dwelling peers their nice, thick layer of insulating fat.

It was also interesting to learn that prison is preferable to what we saw Monday. The Associated Press reported that an inmate named Robert Vick escaped Sunday from the minimum-security Kentucky prison housing him, only to change his mind almost immediately. Evidently he strode into a motel the following day, wearing his prison-issue khaki trousers, shorts and a light jacket, and expressing just one wish: to be put back in jail.

Fortunately, our homes mostly bear little resemblance to a jail. We can cope with a couple of days being stranded there. And no doubt there are more bitterly cold mercury readings yet ahead. There are still 10 weeks until the calendar says spring is here — and we all know the calendar fudges a bit with its promises of warmer temperatures.

I wonder if there’s any whale blubber in the fridge.

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