Thursday, January 31, 2008

Arctic Blast

In 1999 the map of Canada changed for the first time in 50 years. A new territory was carved out of the Northwest Territories and returned to the Inuit people, formerly called Eskimos. Inuit means "The People" and the name of their new country is called Nunavet, which means "Our Land." The vast arctic region they inhabit is larger than the State of Texas, even though their population of 27,000 could comfortably occupy Chicago's Sears Tower (except for the lack of caribou.) With its sub-zero winter temperatures few of us are surprised to discover there is no population explosion in Nunavet.

In case you didn't know, Eskimos are racially distinct from the Native American Indians that inhabit the more hospitable climates of the North American Continent. In Eastern Siberia, Alaska, Labrador and Greenland they're still called Eskimos, which in Algonquin meant "Eaters of Raw Meat."

While growing up it seldom entered my mind to think of Eskimos in terms of their diet. Like most people, I always made the association of Eskimo with cold, inhospitable environments, and igloos. As it turns out, Eskimos live in all sorts of houses, including tents made of skins and underground sod homes, though most live in ordinary houses like ours. Certainly the Arctic environment places demands on these people to which most of us are unaccustomed, though it also helps reduce panhandling and street people.

One of my favorite short stories from high school days was Jack London's To Build A Fire. The story takes place in Alaska's Yukon region. It is a life and death struggle between a man and the elements, with everything hinging on his ability to build a fire. At the beginning of the story the man spits and he realizes, by the crackling sound of the spittle turning to ice in mid-air, that it is more than fifty below, colder than he realized.

Three decades after I first read this story I was clearing my driveway one December night in Duluth, Minnesota. There had been a fair dump of snow followed by a blistering cold Alberta Clipper. I knew it was cold, but discovered how severe the wind chill was when I spit and it became a marble before hitting the crust of snow and rolling away.

I knew right then it was cold. Fortunately that kind of weather is not the norm, even in Minnesota. Now for really cold conditions, think about what it's like to live in the arctic. The average December temperature at Gate of the Arctic National Park is twenty below during the day and forty below at night. Add wind chill temps and you've got weather!

This week, we had the pleasure of getting a spearhead of arctic air in Minnesota that dropped temps by more than fifty degrees in twenty-four hours in most places. My thermometer went from forty above to minus twenty-four overnight. That is a sixty-four degree drop, plus wind chill.

Funny how wind chill works. Usually it goes this way: the temp is zero with a wind chill that makes it feel like minus twenty, or it's minus twenty but feels like minus fifty. Why can't we have minus twenty temps that feel like twenty above? Guess that's not in the cards any time soon. In the meantime, do your best to stay warm. An extra sweater or two never hurt anyone.

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