The Cold Hard Facts


Silly me.  I always thought the Polar Vortex was something husbands step into when they forget their wedding anniversaries.

It turns out the Polar Vortex is actually a very real weather phenomenon that has been attributed in recent days to sinking much of the country into record breaking subzero temperatures.  

It works like this.  Winds above the North Pole circle in a counterclockwise direction keeping the ice bowl air from flushing south for the winter.   

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Once every ice age or so, the circular winds diminish and the frigid polar air mass tries to escape to places like Aruba or Cancun for the winter.  Fortunately, densely populated cities like Chicago and Minneapolis slow the migration south, but as a consequence the rest of North America gets cold.  Very cold.

With so much attention paid to the Polar Vortex recently, I have learned a lot of additional technical terms related to the cold.  I would like to share them with you.

Plunging Mercury.  Temperature is indicated on a graduated glass tube called a thermometer.  The thermometer is filled with mercury, which contracts in volume with decreased thermal activity and is measured in degrees.  

A degree is a little circle that is hard to find on a keyboard.  There are Fahrenheit degrees and Celsius degrees and PHd degrees.  Temperature is also measured in something called a Kelvin, which I suppose is an online degree.

Anyway, measuring temperature is complicated and involves a sophisticated understanding of esoteric disciplines like science and math.

I don’t really understand it all, but when the mercury plunges it is a lot colder than it was before. 

As a point of reference, thermometers are useless during a Polar Vortex because mercury freezes at a balmy 40 degrees below zero.     

Brass Monkey Weather.   There are lots of terms to characterize the severity of cold weather.  Most of these involve relating the temperature to the sensitive body parts of witches, gravediggers, and in this case, brass monkeys whose private parts have literally frozen off.  Most of these terms are offensive and crude, which explains their continued popularity.  

Cold can be measured in other ways too.  Aboriginal Australians rated cold by the number of 70s rock bands they slept with at night to keep them warm; hence the term Three Dog Night.   Personally I use my own scale: Chilly. Cold. Really Cold and  FMBO (freezing my butt off). 

During the Polar Vortex, when FMBO sinks to FMFBO, I don’t go out.

Freezing Point Depression.  The freezing point of water is lowered when combined with other liquids.  Diluted salt actually drops the temperature at which ice forms, explaining why salt is often placed on walkways and the rims of Margarita glasses. 

As a practical matter, 80 proof Vodka freezes at minus 17 degrees below Fahrenheit.  During a Polar Vortex, therefore, it is important to keep Vodka warm in your freezer.

Absolute Zero.  This is the coldest temperature possible.  It is the point at which molecular motion stops and no radiant energy is emitted.  While this is generally considered to be -273 degrees Celsius, it can also be the room temperature of Congress.

Sphenopalatine Gangliomeuralgia.  At first I thought this was the garbled greeting Canadians give when their jaws are too cold to function.  But believe it or not, this is the medical term for brain freeze

Brain freeze is a severe headache derived from flash freezing the soft palate on the roof of the mouth.  This most often occurs in the summer when drinking frozen Daiquiris through straws.  But brain freeze can occur in the icy blasts of a Polar Vortex too, much the same way it occurs in the summer. 

In subzero temperatures, daiquiris are best served indoors.

Tonguesicle.  Urban legend has it that if you lick a flagpole at subzero temperatures the metal will freeze the moisture on your tongue essentially welding your taste buds to the pole.   If the metal is cold enough, thermal convection will ultimately develop a hardened lump in your mouth called tonguesicle.   

A word of advice: If tonguesicle occurs in extreme Polar Vortex temperatures, do not attempt to tear yourself from the offending metal.  Instead, have the fire department remove the flagpole and carry it with you to the ER so that a physician can safely remove it.

By the way, flagpoles taste like chicken.

Wind Chill Factor.  Contrary to popular belief, The Wind Chill Factor is not a reality TV show set in a Siberian meat locker.   It is simply a ploy used by TV meteorologists to heighten weather drama by making it seem colder than it already is.    

Isn’t it time for another season of The Heat Index?

Reservations.   This is a natural phenomenon that occurs during a Polar Vortex.  They are usually made to the Caribbean or Hawaii.

Stay warm.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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