The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Saturday, January 31, 2004


Interview With A Canadian

Starring former Winnipeg resident Evan Kirchhoff!


Hey Evan,

I was looking at weather reports yesterday and saw that your home town of Winnipeg was at -35 degrees Fahrenheit.


Glad not to be there!


How often does that happen?


On and off during December through February, possibly a little into March and November. Maybe 15% of the core winter days are brutally cold, the other days are just regular cold (zero to -10F, say). The snow usually melts in April or possibly May.


Are people able to function, or do they just huddle next to their radiators? Is it like a snow day where things shut down?


Nah, it's not a big deal! Forced-air furnace heating is probably as common as air conditioning in Atlanta, for starters (natural gas is cheap in Manitoba), although I lived in an old apartment with electric baseboard radiators at one point, and I froze my ass off when it got cold. And obviously you plug in your block heater and (if you're a pampered suburbanite as opposed to a student in a crummy apartment where they ration you to one $%&*#^$ electrical outlet per car) you plug in your interior heater so the steering wheel doesn't take your damned fingers off. Barring that, you need some kind of thermal insulator on the wheel itself, or you'll end up driving with big mitts on (gloves aren't thick enough for a cold plastic wheel). Keep a shovel and a bag of kitty litter in the trunk. Tire chains are forbidden, for road-damage reasons (and the city is pretty efficient at clearing the roads down to bare pavement after each snowfall). There's not as much snowfall as, say, Chicago, but it doesn't get warm enough to melt any snow during the winter, so the snow gets perpetually piled onto the boulevards until it's 5-7 feet high, creating blind intersections. And then it gets dark around 4:30 in the winter.

Apart from that, life pretty much goes on normally! It takes a LOT of snow to shut anything down (it's unbelievable what counts as a "snow day" in most U.S. states), and the cold alone won't do it. I can only think of a couple of times when the city actually shut down for a day.

I guess the salient difference from a normal Tahoe- or Michigan-type winter experience would be "pain". When it's really cold, stepping outside is like taking a bat in the stomach, and then your lungs feel like you're inhaling shards of glass, and your face burns for a little while, and then (mercifully) it goes numb. After that you want to keep track of how long you've been outside, because at some point tissue damage sets in, and it hurts MORE during the thawing process! But of course if you're a dumb little kid you just run around for a couple of hours making snowmen, and every year you kill the tip of your nose, the top edges of your ears, and a little round patch about the size of a quarter on each cheek. The dead skin wears off in a couple of weeks, so frostbite turns out not to be a big deal.

There doesn't seem to be real danger of (e.g.) losing a toe under anything resembling normal circumstances, and (from experience) even if you stay outside until your feet are frozen to the point where you can't feel them at all, where you stomp on one foot with the other foot and it just doesn't register, they thaw pretty harmlessly after about half an hour of sitting inside. And I imagine that many of these X-Treme Cold experiences are a thing of the past, now that every kid probably has the high-tech arctic gear from Columbia Sportswear and such. In MY day we just had $40 nylon parkas stuffed with cheap felt shavings, and felt-lined boots.

Another thing to consider is that the winter is extremely sunny, and blindingly so when the sun reflects off the snow. California's about the only place that doesn't seem "gloomy" to me at this point (Michigan was intolerably dark).


Hell, I can go on forever on the subject of "winter" (as you probably are beginning to note). The winter before I bought my first car, I rode a stock $99 12-speed skinny-tire drop-handlebar bike to university every day. It turns out that bikes are great on packed snow, but cheap steel shatters at those temperatures, so every so often I'd wipe out on some ice and smash another part of the pedals off. My chain would freeze solid each morning until I discovered the trick of lubricating the entire bike with 5W-30 motor oil.


Also, do you know what the record low is for Winnipeg? It was not on weather.com and Google didn't help much -- I did find that the record low for Manitoba is -63 F, but presumably that at the northern extreme of the province.



Hmm -- I see what you mean about weather.com, although even the graph of average temperatures in Farenheit is striking: 70-degree annual swing! Yeah!! (Note that summer is quite pleasant.)

Now, this somewhat under-documented page claims to record -44 C for Winnipeg, which is about -47 Faranheit.

I've definitely seen numbers in the negative 40s, but I don't recall anything lower. This is setting aside "wind chill", which becomes nontrivial. Usually when it's extremely cold the air is still, but if there's a real wind you can get -60 equivalents pretty easily. The weather reports didn't express this in temperature equivalents but in some bizarro Metric index of heat removal per unit area per unit time: 1500-2000 was quite cold, and 3700+ was the famous "Warning: Exposed Skin Will Freeze In Less Than A Minute".

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Some personal background: I grew up in Geneva, New York. We had a lot of snow -- usually from Thanksgiving to Easter -- but what Evan calls "regular cold" would be considered bitter cold there. (Though we did have a block heater for the car.) As this temperature graph shows, an average winter day in Geneva has a high near freezing and a low of about 15. Contrast with January in Winnipeg, where the average high is 8 degrees and the average low is ten below. The temperature difference between Geneva and Winnipeg is therefore roughly the difference between Geneva and northern California.)


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