What’s cold?

NASA and NSDIC recently pinpointed the coldest place on earth, a blistering -137F (-94C).  Apparently, at temperatures that cold, one has to be careful not to freeze part of one’s throat or lungs while breathing.  While breathing.  Now, that’s cold.

But what is cold to you?

This is not an objective question.  To my Aussie friends, I was considered mad for wearing shorts throughout the (in my opinion) temperate Brisbane winter, which got down a bit below 0C (32F) only a few times during the night.  I was also considered insane for visiting Tasmania in the heart of winter (August) and climbing Mt. Wellington with nothing but a sweatshirt for warmth.

When I visited Colombia in January, the balmy 50F (12C) weather led me to wear shorts and t-shirts and instantly marked me as a foreigner.  All of the locals were dressed in poofy down coats and long pants.

I’m a warmth loving person.  I adore summer and the tropics, so I’m a big fan of heat (not that Heat).  But I also seem to have a pretty high cold tolerance.  I run outdoors throughout the winter (even though I have had frostbite before).  I have done field work in -30F (-34C), when little dark-eyed juncos huddled for warmth in conifers and looked down on me in pity.

To me, anything below freezing is technically “cold” but not necessarily unpleasant.  Anything between 10-30F (-12-0C) is tolerable and does not hinder outdoor activity.  0-10F (-18 to -12C) can be rough but tolerable for runs of about an hour or cross country skiing (anything where I am exerting myself except cycling where wind chill is a significant factor).

Below 0 F is just COLD and it’s hard work not to get frostbite or otherwise hurt myself while being active outdoors.  I know that people in the nether regions of the north regularly tolerate temperatures of -60 or -70F (-57C), but I don’t think it would be good running weather!

The glass-liquid transition (where plastics effectively turn to glass) for polypropoylene (commonly used in plastic parts) is -20C (-4F).  At that stage, I have had the lights on my bike shatter, the cord connecting my earbuds to my music player crumble to pieces, and my jacket crack.  So that seems pretty cold.

What’s “cold” to you?


14 thoughts on “What’s cold?

  1. I’m originally from Minnesota, so my tolerance for cold is pretty high, and my idea of it makes other people stare and back away slowly. It actually falls pretty well in line with yours.

    Hot: Anything over 75. I don’t have much heat tolerance, which has made living some of the places I have (Louisiana, Texas, Florida) not very fun, including here. I’m not looking forward to summer in Georgia As far as I’m concerned, there is no winter here.

    Ideal: 75 to 40. Spring and Fall, in other words. Shame they only lasted three days each in MN….

    Cool: 40 to 30. Time to trade shorts for jeans and break out the light jacket.

    Chilly: 30 to 20. Heavier jacket.

    Cold: 20 to 0. Actual winter coat.

    Winter: 20 to -30. Gloves, too.

    Groceries? No, I wasn’t planning to eat this week: -30 and lower.

    Sunshine makes all the difference in winter. On my last trip back to MN, I heard on TV that it was 19 out. I stepped outside into bright sunshine, took a deep breath, and thought, “What a nice day.” I went to school in southern Colorado and I loved the weather there.

    • This is such a great comment!! I’m very similar to you cold wise, but I love heat! Oh, and my hands are cold at 50. Don’t know why, never can keep the darn things warm. They’re my biggest hindrance to outdoor winter activity.

      Does Minnesota get a lot of sun? Here in NY, sunshine is a rarity! But yes, Colorado is the best.

      • MN gets a fair amount of sun year-round, with a very big drop-off in winter. There are a lot of gray, bleak winter days, and they seem so much colder even when the temperature is the same as on a sunny day. I still prefer that kind of weather to what I hit in LA and FL. I was infinitely more miserable on a double-hundred day than I ever was in a blizzard.

        When we moved to NW Scotland, I was told by all kinds of people that I would find the weather unbearable; in the UK that seems to be the standard for a barren winter wasteland. I loved it. It definitely helped that I like rain!

  2. Cold is when you don’t have enough – or the right – clothes on for the weather / prevailing temp (taking wind-chill into account). Mind you I’ve never been anywhere colder than -15º (NYC), so what would I know! And that was quite cold enough for me. RH

    • That is a very good point RH! However, I would like to point out that, at some temperatures, dressing appropriately can be very challenging, especially factoring activity levels, moisture, and mobility. Indeed, in some temperatures the safest way to dress is four walls and a fire place.

  3. Something I really dislike is having to stand still in the cold, which unfortunately I have to do a lot as I get the bus twice a day. At the moment day temps in London are about 10C, which I consider quite warm for winter. Things will get really miserable when temps go below 5C and the northerly winds come. Dressing for the weather is tricky when you go from the relatively chilly bus to a 40 minute journey on a heaving and hot tube train!

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