Windchill

January 28, 2004
The high temperature today in Winnipeg was -33C (-27.4F), which isn't so bad in itself, but the wind makes it much worse.  The wind chill has been between -48C and -51C all day.  Being a Canadian, and from the prairies, I take pride in my ability to weather inhumanely cold temperatures, and I have my favorite cold stories, that I love to tell over and over again at times like this.

No one in Winnipeg talks about a dome of warmth over the city; but car exhaust, homes radiating heat, industrial activity and so on still manage to boost outdoor temperatures within city limits.  As I type this  (9:40pm), the official temperature at Winnipeg International Airport is -38 (-36.4F).  We still have a 17kph wind, so the wind chill is -50C (-58F).  Now that's cold, but just think, it could be 4 degrees colder outside urban areas.  For all things made out of iron, steel and plastic, -40 is magical.  Men and beasts have internal heaters, mechanical things don't.  When it gets colder than forty below, perfectly sound pieces of metal snap at the slightest tension.  When I worked at one of the car dealerships that can be found on my resume, we had a customer who drove truck on ice roads to gold mines in the Northwest Territories.  His cold stories included tales of truck and trailer frames that would break in two in extreme cold.  Even in the Northwest Territories, forty below is still considered cold.  Not phenomenally cold, but still cold.

All long-time Canadians have anecdotes about unofficial cold records.  However, Uncle Louis'  thermometer on the back porch isn't considered accurate enough for official records.  The official Canadian record is -63C (-81F) at Snag in the Yukon on February 3rd, 1947.  By the way, you can't say that the mercury dropped to -63, mercury itself freezes at -38.8344 C .  For the forty below crowd, you need a thermocouple (two pieces of metal placed together that produce a current that varies with the temperature) or you need to put a different liquid in your thermometer tube.  Most outdoor thermometers for the retail market use methanol (rubbing alcohol) and a dye to give it some color. 

My coldest official temperature?  -47C (-52.6F), twice in December 1990, first in Peace River, Alberta and the following night in Fort St. John, B.C..  The idle speed solenoid would not work until my car's underhood temperature came up a bit, so I had to sit in the car for 30 minutes with my foot on the gas pedal to keep it running.  The block heater kept the engine block warm enough that the oil would flow and the motor would start, but the ISC valve (which is basically a rod moved with an electromagnet) wouldn't slide in its hole, so the car wouldn't idle by itself.  There is a long metal bridge over the Peace River at Taylor, just south of Fort St. John, about 40 kilometers downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett hydro dam, and the Peace River only freezes over at that point after a long cold spell.  The fog coming off the river reduced visibility on the bridge to the point where you could barely see the painted railing, and you couldn't see oncoming vehicles until they were almost beside you.  Once in town, if you were behind another vehicle when the traffic light turned green, you had zero visibility once again; from the exhaust of the car in front of you as it accelerated.

I just went upstairs and the cable channel shows a temperature of -39 (-53 with the wind chill) as of 10pm.  Goodnight.


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