Here’s a live picture of me checking the temperature and wind chill readings:
Currently we are sitting at -18 deg F and 18 mph winds, which makes -45 deg F wind chill.
So, how do we all cope, ecologically?
A similar cold snap happened when I was wrapping up grad school, in January 2014. I remember a lot of snow, -40 deg F wind chill, and ice forming on the inside of our leaky windows.
I also remember the birds. We put out some sunflower seeds on top of the snow, feeling pretty sorry for the buggers. The dark-eyed juncos came quickly, puffing up their feathers for extra insulation, they kept right on doing their junco thing.
Juncos are a sure sign of a Midwestern winter. They nest in Canada but winter throughout the continental U.S.
I remember reading that they maintain an internal body temperature of 104 deg F. I stared through the window pane in wonder… how does something that weighs as much as four quarters maintain a 140+ degree temperature difference with its environment?
Surviving severe winters, of course, biologically rewards those individual juncos who are most fit for their environment. These survival genes are passed on to the next clutch of eggs. But it’s still amazing nonetheless.
How about insects?
Some folks are hopeful that this cold snap will set back the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian pest that has almost completely decimated Ash trees throughout the Midwest (and is still spreading).
But it’s likely that any effects on the population will be short-term, only delaying the inevitable. This cold snap will kill those individuals who are the least cold-hearty, and those most fit to an extreme winter will live to reproduce.
Remember our mosquito friends? I wrote a post last year about finding a mosquito on January 8th in our north woodland, after 21 consecutive days below freezing, including one night down to -20 deg F.
Don’t plan on getting rid of those guys (& gals) anytime soon. (Although, scientists are on the verge of finding a way to potentially wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes altogether, which presents some pretty thorny ethical issues).
What about us humans? Before weather forecasts, radios, and the like, sudden winter storms could turn into a severe threat.
There was the Schoolhouse Blizzard of January 1888, a series of very unusual events that combined to catch many people outside in the Great Plains just as temperatures plummeted rapidly. More than 200 died and more lost fingers, hands, and feet. Another blizzard that March killed more than 400 people along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Scientists have greatly improved weather forecasts through the years. Millions of people are now routinely evacuated safely out of the path of hurricanes. This cold snap was predicted several days ago, giving thousands of communities ample time to prepare. Even within my brief lifetime, the 3-day forecasts are now as accurate as day-ahead forecasts used to be. As a father, I’m extremely grateful to the scientists, first responders, and governmental institutions that keep it all running.
But careful with the hubris, frail human. Hurricanes have regularly killed hundreds or thousands in the U.S. Two of the deadliest six in our history came recently (Katrina in 2005, Maria in 2017), the moralities being a function of more social failure than meteorology.
A couple weeks ago, I asked if solar panels work in the winter. Yes, indeed. I looked up the spec sheet for the panels and the inverters, and their listed operating temperature goes down to -40 deg C. We are currently at -28 deg C (-18 deg F) and they are doing fine.
In fact, it looks like we hit a new all-time high for power production last Friday (Jan. 25) at 67,771 W. It was about +10 deg F that day. Cold is good!
*UPDATE/ASIDE: there have been reports of loud BOOMS! across the Midwest, and even Plymouth… frost quakes!*
Lastly, one video from this morning, just for fun. A science experiment for the extreme cold. Instead of popping, soap bubbles will first freeze and shatter, falling to the ground in pieces of thin ice.
Later today I’m going to try to hammer a nail through a board with a frozen banana!
Oh, yeah, a banana.!!!
Great piece, Adam.