Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cold inaccuracies get silly with chilly

Luckily, 'feels like' nonsense is bound for scrap heap

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At some point this year, almost everywhere on Earth will be colder than the surface of Mars, where daytime highs can be downright livable during the summer.

According to the folks at NASA, equatorial regions of Mars routinely experience daytime summer highs in the vicinity of 20 C. Most people on this planet call that "room temperature."

Given this basic bit of astrophysical information, the fact any given location on Earth happens to be colder than someplace on Mars is decidedly unremarkable.

But if Winnipeg happens to be the location, well, that somehow becomes newsworthy, given our penchant toward exaggeration -- and the rest of Canada's insatiable appetite for any news that confirms our status as a place inhospitable to human life.

On New Year's Eve, when the nice people at the Manitoba Museum tweeted it was colder in Winnipeg than on the surface of Mars, they had no idea they were playing into the hands of Canadians who love to perpetuate long-standing stereotypes about Winnipeg.

National media, based out of Toronto, routinely carry stories about the cold in Manitoba. So when an official source notes it's colder in Peg City than it is at the base of Olympus Mons, that story becomes irresistible, meteorological catnip.

Within days, the Winnipeg-colder-than-Mars meme raced around the continent, far beyond places where Winnipeg-bashing is a time-honoured sport.

Given the fact the highest estimated temperature on Mars is 27 C, you could just as easily argue Vancouver NEVER gets as warm as it does on Mars.

Of course, that would be silly. But it's no sillier than pointing out it's colder in Winnipeg than on Mars when every other non-tropical city on Earth can have the same claim to fame.

Unfortunately, there's no place for logic or science when people talk about the weather.

Predictably, the current cold snap in North America has riled up climate change deniers, who seem oblivious to the connection between the loss of Arctic sea ice, slowing atmospheric winds and a jet stream that meanders to the south.

When that jet stream dips down, so does the Arctic air, which is very, very cold. But never underestimate Winnipeg's ability to exaggerate the nature of that cold.

Thanks to the unscientific way Canadian meteorologists express wind chill, many Winnipeggers believe it's far colder here than it actually is -- or has ever been.

On New Year's Eve, for example, the real temperature was -37.9 C, a remarkably cold overnight low. But that was described as "feeling like -48" with the wind chill.

As a result, some residents of this city believe it actually was -48 C on New Year's Eve, when in fact it's never been that cold in Winnipeg. The coldest recorded temperature in this city -45 C, a nadir reached in 1966.

The problem is, most people don't understand the difference between temperature, a completely objective measure, and wind chill, which is entirely subjective. When your morning-radio personality says "it feels like -40," they fail to mention it feels nothing of the sort if you're protected from the wind.

Most Canadians wear jackets, gloves and tuques when they go outside in January. Very few of us wear yoga pants and nothing more.

Given this subjectivity, scientists can't stand the "feels like" system of expressing wind chill. "Wind chill is the scourge of most meteorologists because it really skews the picture," Environment Canada's Dave Phillips told the Globe and Mail last week.

It wasn't always this way. Up until 2001, Environment Canada calculated wind chill on a more objective basis, calculating the combined cooling effect of temperature in watts of energy lost per square metre.

Under the old system, wind-chill factors of 900 to 1400 were considered tolerable, 2000 was the point where unprotected skin could freeze in under a minute, and factors of 2600 or more warranted staying inside at any cost.

This was useful but wasn't easily understood and wound up getting replaced by the subjective "feels like" system.

Environment Canada is promising a less pseudo-scientific cold-weather warning standard later this year. In the meantime, Winnipeggers ought to stop exaggerating. When it's -33 C in the morning, it's obviously cold enough.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2014 A2


Updated on Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 7:44 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds video, adds link

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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