January 28, 2004
The high temperature today in Winnipeg was -33ºC (-27.4ºF),
which isn't so bad in itself, but the wind makes it much worse.
The wind chill has been between -48ºC and -51ºC 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
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 -38º (-36.4ºF). We still have
a 17kph wind, so the wind chill is -50ºC (-58ºF). 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,
-40º 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 -63ºC (-81ºF) 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? -47ºC (-52.6ºF), 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
-39º (-53º with the wind chill) as of 10pm. Goodnight.