This Is What -40°F Feels Like


Thanks to Canada failing to sufficiently warm up a big blanket of freezing air descending southward from the Arctic, for much of the lower 48 states, the next couple of days are going to be colder than Jack Frost’s butt plug. Some of the forecasted wind chills are so cold they’re almost unfathomable — unless you grew up in them.

A POLAR VORTEX, as Bond villain cartoonish as it sounds, is a real meteorological term for a long-lasting, large-scale arctic cyclone that just sits over a particular area of the earth’s surface and freezes the shit out of everything. The one we’re currently experiencing over much of mainland America has led to wind chills of -50 and -60 degrees Fahrenheit over the Great Plains, the Dakotas, and my old stomping grounds of the greater Twin Cities area for at least the next couple of days. In Chicago, they’re already sitting at double digits below zero, with wind chills south of -40. My mother, a school administrator in northern Wisconsin, was just last week texting me that she personally went from classroom to classroom to poke her head in and tauntingly tell the kids that she’s not canceling school so they should PREPARE TO BUNDLE UP has even caved and called off class. Here in New York City, the high today is 55. Tomorrow’s high is 14.

It’s really fucking cold. How fucking cold? Let me coldsplain it to you, from someone who grew up in a place so cold that I consider myself a bit of a cold sommelier.

15 to 30 °F

Everyone’s been in this temperature. It’s too cold to not wear a hat and be comfortable, but you can make do going gloveless if you have warm enough pockets. Cute jackets still work. If you walk briskly enough, it’s not that bad. You can wear skirts in this weather if you wear tough enough tights. Don’t be a wimp. It’s fine.

0 to 15°F

This is where shit starts to Get Real. Light, flimsy coats won’t cut it; the only way you’ll be comfortable in this temperature is in a puffer coat or Thinsulate. You’ll need gloves — and not the shitty kind you buy in a 6 pack from H&M, those gloves in 8 degrees will just make your fingers feel like individual frozen hotdogs affixed to your palm, incapable of movement. Long underwear helps. Don’t try to go on a run in this weather. It’s just too cold.

-15 to 0°F

You can feel your scalp through your hat and probably should cover your face. Cheeks become immediately reddened, any exposed skin on the neck or ears is incredibly uncomfortable. A long jacket is preferable to a short one, as it helps provide butt coverage. The best jackets for this weather are the ones that make the wearers look like they’re wearing a sleeping bag, or like the opium-addicted caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland. Over Christmas, temperatures in my hometown were around -10 most of the time, and my boyfriend reported that after being outside for about 10 minutes, his beard started to freeze.

From the inside, you can feel how cold it is outside, even if you have your thermostat cranked all the way up.

-30 to -15 °F

This is what I always referred to as “mandatory doublepants weather” growing up, as it requires anyone who wants to venture into it to wear… uh… double pants (long underwear if you’ve got them, or sometimes I just wear leggings under jeans). This is the sort of cold that cuts through denim like it’s jersey, that finds its way up untethered sleeves, that seeps through insulation and creates a layer of freezer burn under doors.

It’s so cold at this temperature that if you boil a pot of water, take it outside, and toss it into the air, it will freeze and turn into ice crystals before it hits the ground.

You can feel your eyelid skin start to freeze when you go outside and if you go without a scarf over your nose and mouth, your boogers will freeze. (Try it! It’s so gross!) You should not be going outside. The best glove strategy if you do have to go outside is to wear regular gloves UNDER oversized mittens.

-39 to -30 °F

Ibid on the above item, but at this point there air is so incapable of holding moisture that it zaps everything from exposed skin. This is The Long Winter-level despairing, hopeless cold. This is cold that paralyzes airports and closes down major highways. Once, when I was a kid, at the end of the school day on a Monday, the teacher went around handing out orange half slips of paper that we were to give to our parents. SCHOOL CANCELLED UNTIL THURSDAY, the note said, because it was legally too cold to require kids to go to school and since a lot of us lived in the country, the school didn’t want any students turning into kidsicles while waiting for the bus. They ended up canceling school for the entire week, but it was so cold that we couldn’t even go outside and play.

-40 °F

Normally, when a human being with a normal respiratory system breathes, the air first enters their mouth and nose, then proceeds past the larynx and trachea and into the large airways in the lungs, where the air branches off into smaller and smaller tubes until it reaches the alveoli, small air sacs where air meets blood and trades oxygen for carbon dioxide. In normal temperatures fit for human habitation, by the time the air passes through the bronchioles and into the alveoli, it’s usually warm enough that you don’t feel like you’re getting stabbed in the blood cells by icicles. Not in 40 degrees below zero. At this temperature, you feel the cold in your lung-tubes. You feel it in the air sacs. You feel it touching your blood. It’s hard to take deep breaths of air this cold without reflexively coughing. It doesn’t take long in this before any exposed tissue — including teeth and eyeballs — starts becoming painful. Yeah. The actual balls of your eyes. You’ll feel them wince.

Wear all of your clothes at once. All of it. Dress like the garbage-person from Labyrinth. Put on six hats. Your boots can’t help your toes, even with wool socks. You have wool socks, right? In this weather, shooties are suicide, and off-the-shoulder tops are idiotic. If you have to walk any distance outside, you will stop midway through the walk and think, “maybe I’ll die before I get there.” And you might. But don’t worry — before you die of cold, you’ll probably hallucinate first that you’re very warm, and then you’ll take off your clothes and be found naked and peaceful in a snowbank the next day.

Actually, come to think of it: 40 below zero is the perfect weather to spend all day inside watching Netflix and/or masturbating.

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