Commentary – 50 degrees below zero

Joe McWilliams

Who knows how reliable mercury thermometers were, back in the day? Were winters really that much colder than they are now?

Maybe they were, but all kinds of oldtimers seem to remember 60-below days when they were growing up.

Official records suggest it never happened. Unless you lived in Snag, Yukon, which has held the record [-63C] for the past 72 years.

But that was [still is, let’s face it] about -81F, leaving plenty room for -60F in other places or other times.

My personal record is 50 below on the old Fahrenheit scale. I remember it particularly because that was the day the smoke from our wood stove [our only source of heat] decided to stop going up the chimney. Instead, it poured out into the house.

This would be an inconvenient thing at any time of the year! At 50 below it was a crisis, because we had to open the door to let the smoke out. My dad was up on the roof, banging around the chimney, trying to figure out if there was some blockage. There wasn’t. It was something atmospheric.

Damned inconvenient, too!

If there’s one day of the year when you need your chimney to work, it’s when the mercury is at 50 below or lower.

So … 50 below Fahrenheit was as cold as it ever got when I was paying attention, growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the B.C. Peace Country. It would have been as cold there as anywhere in the Prairies, I think, but with maybe more frequent chinooks.

It was close enough to Alaska to feel the 1964 Anchorage Earthquake, but not close enough to benefit much from the warmth of the Pacific Ocean – or for that matter to get as cold as the Yukon. Sixty below we never saw; 90F in the summer was also quite rare. It seems we hit it oftener [Mark Twain used ‘oftener’, so I will too] now than in previous years.

This wasn’t supposed to be a story about climate change. But even the most vehement deniers will agree it’s warmer generally in the winter than it used to be. Such things vary from place to place and year to year, but average temperatures have apparently gone up by a bit less than one degree in the past 100 years. The effect seems strongest in the polar regions, which is of course bad news for anybody living near the coast.

Who knew any of this was going to happen? This thing called civilization is a big experiment that we’re figuring out as we go along. All kinds of forces are at play, and when it comes to large-scale alteration of human habits, there are no precedents.

Thinking ‘globally’ is not in our cultural DNA. Acting globally even less. It could be the best we can do is work on making our own lives and communities less filthy. If we do that and the world still goes to hell in a handbasket, at least we can say we made a decent effort at making our little part of it a better place.

That’s not to say our governments can’t do better if we insist that they do. Nobody really knows what is coming. But the trends suggest melting ice caps, rising oceans along with plenty of drought and flooding. Mass migration of distressed populations is likely to be a big part of our future. It already is, but drought is a relative minor factor. Political unrest is the big creator of refugees. That likely won’t stop, but the trends suggest drought might produce bigger dislocation than anything we’ve seen in modern times.

We can stick our heads in the sand all we like – build walls and so on, but it isn’t going to go away.


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