It’s freezing in New York City. Just a moment ago, I took my short-haired coonhounds for a walk. My cheeks were burning from the cold and the dogs were nearly too frosty to do their business on the discarded Christmas trees littering the curb.
As I approached my stoop I saw a well-bundled can man going through the trash. It was dark out, about 5 degrees. I reached into my pocket to give him a five, because I just admired this guy for working so hard in this weather and I thought he might like a bowl of soup, but then his phone rang and he got into a shouting match with someone, clearly his wife. So I ducked inside to the warmth of my fire. But even here I feel the ice air coming through the brick walls. So yes, it’s cold.
Still, I find the hype chill to be much harsher than the supposed wind chill. Yesterday the radio told me the temperature “felt” like 15 below, given the “wind chill.” Still, as I rode my bike to work I thought it felt like 12 above, which was the actual temperature. Sure, it was crazy to ride a bike in that weather, and I never would have done it if it felt like 15 below. (And by the way, how much did my movement on the bike add to the wind chill effect? And if you walk backwards, does the wind chill lessen, since if my physics holds, you are actually reducing the wind speed?) There are a lot of weather calculations going on these days that seem pretty complicated to me. But I think their main benefit is to hype the news, to get more eyeballs on the ads. Yes, I think the Arctic polar vortex is a plot to enrich Rupert Murdoch’s coffers.
I’m cynical about the weather.
The wind chill concept was developed in the early 20th century by two dudes in Antarctica who measured how quickly a bottle of water cooled when they hung it above their tent (they did not have YouTube and other diversions back then). Later, the National Weather Service revised the wind chill calculations, and now wind chill is determined by the wind speed at a height of five feet, which supposedly is the typical height of an adult human face (mine is more like six feet, which might explain why I don’t believe in wind chill effect). It calculates the effect of wind on heat transference in the average shnozz. And, solar power lovers take note, the calculations don’t take into effect the heat or comfort of the sun’s rays (tell that to Icarus). Instead, the numbers are based on what it would feel like outside under a clear night sky.
That means that at 10 degrees, a 4 mph wind will make it “feel” like 3 degrees. And a 10 mph wind will “feel” like negative 4 degrees. And a 110 mph wind will feel like negative 25. I say that actually, in each of these cases it will “feel” like 0 degrees and “f’n windy out here — holy crap!”
I have no doubt that wind makes cold feel colder. And it definitely increases your risk for frostbite. I support all efforts to keep skin covered and stay indoors when it is cold outside. But I question whether we should overstate the coldness. Ten degrees is pretty cold, and it’s a pretty good indication that you should bundle up if you go out. Is there any benefit to listening to TV and radio and Web voices going on and on about the wind chill?
This morning the radio suggested that my kids could develop frostbite on their five-minute walk to the subway for their commute to school. And at 7 a.m., other parents were debating wind chill safety effects on social media because of it. (Evidence that another much-hyped issue — children abusing social media — should also include a discussion of parental “like” and “comment” abuse.)
As my daughter left the house wearing a down vest under her down coat, mittens and thick hat, scarf and boots, I said to her, “Can you believe that when I was a kid we didn’t even have down coats?” She looked at me with a “Like, what are you talking about?” look and said, “What did you wear?” “Cloth coats,” I said. “Peacoats. They’d get wet and frozen as you walked, and never dried out. I bought my first down coat — with my own money, I might add — when I was 16.” I could read her mind as she walked down the stairs to the dangerous winds blowing up West 20th Street. She was thinking, “They probably didn’t have wind chill back then either.”