We decided not to cancel our weekend trip north to see grandchildren in Maine, despite all the weather bureau’s dire warnings, basically because we’ve seen worse in our time. This “direct discharge of arctic air” was definitely a danger to all who were forced to be outdoors, but we’d be in a car with a heater, on well-traveled highways, and there was no snow in the forecast.

As usual we had to shift scheduals about to even get a half day off on Friday at the Childcare we run, and by then the blast was already hitting. Temperatures had stayed up in southwest winds until the cold front came crashing through around 3:00 AM, and then temperatures dropped from 27 degrees to 14 by dawn. (-2.7 to -10 Celsius). There was a squall of snow as the front came through, but that snow never seemed to settle on the ground, but just whirled about as wraiths of white all morning. Nor did temperatures rise. Every time I looked it was a degree colder, down to 9 degrees (-12.8 Celsius) by 10:14 when I got off work to tend to fires at home.

I loaded the stoves, closing the drafts so they’d burn slow, and raised the temperature of the back-up propane heat, and set up an electric heater in a bathroom and in the cellar to avoid frozen pipes in the drafty old house. (Our utility bills for the next 36 hours will likely be higher than all of January’s). Then, after swiftly packing an overnight bag, my wife and I hit the road a little after noon, with the temperature at 8 degrees (-13.3 Celsius) and the wind steadily 20 mph with much higher gusts, and a wind chill of -11 (-24.4 Celsius).

The main problem with the drive north was the winds shoving cars, so that all the traffic was swerving slightly. North of Portsmouth there was a crash that had involved at least three cars, including a car flipped over, in the southbound lane, with around five miles of traffic backed up (on a three lane highway) behind it, but we ran into no problems heading north. The temperature only dropped a degree back at home, but it had dropped to 5 degrees (-15 Celsius) in Portland, despite that city being by the ocean. As we arrived the winds were steadily at 23 mph with higher gusts roaring in the street-side trees. It was interesting to look out to sea and see the cumulus puffing up ocean-effect snows. Or interesting while looking out the window of the warm car. As soon as I stepped outside the only thing I was interested in was getting through a front door.

The second-story apartment was in a 150-year-old farmhouse, but the structure was newly insulated, and stayed warm and wonderfully free from drafts, and my granddaughters commanded my interest. Even if you weren’t interested, they demand it, and I actually am interested. It was nice that they could run around a warm place half naked, thanks to fossil fuels, yet the entire time I could see, out the triple-pane windows, wraiths of loose snow swirling in the brilliant sunshine, and smoke streaming sideways, straight as a clothesline, from neighboring chimneys, and hear the trees roaring even through the muffling walls. One mighty blast made the structure creak slightly, (which you sort of expect from old farmhouses, just as you expect skyscrapers to sway a little in gales, when you’re on the upper floors.)

As soon as the final orange flare of sunlight dipped below the twilight horizon the temperatures plunged again, and by 8:00 it was -9 (-22.8 Celsius) with a wind chill of -36 (-37.8 Celsius). Checking my phone, I could see back at home in New Hampshire it was three degrees warmer, at -6, with a wind chill of -29. The blast was peaking, between a 952 mb low bombing out over Labrador and a 1042 mb high pressure parked over Virginia.

Overnight it chilled less by the ocean, and by morning it was -11 (-23.9 Celsius) in Portland, while my phone informed me it was down to -17 (-27.2 Celsius) back home in New Hampshire, but when I stepped outside, though it was officially colder and just as windy, I imagined I could feel a tangible change.

When I had to work outdoors I often noticed this change, but never have been able to identify it. Perhaps there is a slight change in the dryness of the air, but it is hardly noticeable in terms of relative humidity. The air just “feels” different, and is less cruel. The old-timers I once worked with used to just look up, smile slightly, and say, “Feels like the cold’s broken.” Then, even it wasn’t all that much warmer, the cold simply felt liked it had relented and was less merciless. Ever since I’ve always wondered if there is some metric, other than temperature, humidity and wind speed, we haven’t learned to measure yet.

By afternoon the temperature was up to 7 degrees (-17 Clesius) and the winds were slackening, and it just felt like an ordinary, cold winter’s day.

Next the warm front on the west side of the high pressure in the above map is suppose to start effecting us, and the temperatures will actually rise overnight, and be over 40 tomorrow (4.4 Celsius). The blast will be past.

One thing I’ll be watching for is the effect this rush of cold air will have on the sea-surface temperatures off our coast. They have been above-normal, but the sub-zero blasting gales not only will churn the surface, but lead to some up-welling of colder waters from the depths.

But beyond that, unless you were in a car that wound up upside down on a major highway, the blast didn’t seem particularly terrible, though it may have set records on top of Mount Washington, at -47 degrees the lowest ever recorded up there, and, at -46, with a wind gust of 106 mph, achieving a windchill of -107 (-77.2 Celsius) which would be a new record for North America. (Old record was -105 in Alaska). However we don’t suffer like the old-timers did, with our warm cars and warm apartments (if we have them). Count your blessings, and include fossil fuels.


P.S. I’m back in New Hampshire, and despite all precautions the pipes are frozen somewhere between the well and the kitchen sink. (The bathroom works, which is the important thing.) Such inconvenience is to be expected, when you are foolish enough to have bought an abode built before people had kitchen sinks. A 250-year-old house has it’s “charms”, but warmth is not one of them.

One pity of modern conveniences is that some people, who live in the lap of luxury that modern conveniences provide, often have no idea what life is like without them. In many ways I feel fortunate to have lived with people in places that hadn’t yet got electricity. For them the way they lived was not “inconvenient”, but merely was the way it had always been.

For Al Gore the “inconvenient truth” is that he has never lived that way. I wish that, for his sake, he could experience an arctic blast such as we have just experienced without the benefit of fossil fuels. It wouldn’t kill him. He has blubber. But after twenty-four hours I’ll bet you that he’d be whimpering, “Fossil fuels! Fossil fuels! Please give me fossil fuels!”