The upper Midwest of the United States has been experiencing the coldest temperatures since the late 1980’s. In Winona, Minnesota we had -15F (-26C) today. Let me elaborate; this is not a “wind chill” reading, it is the ambient temperature. If you live in northern Mississippi and the temp is 28 F with a high enough wind, you can “brag” that the wind chill is -2 degrees. This makes a Mississippian feel a lot more rugged than he really is. People in Minnesota (and especially North Dakota) don’t bother with wind chill readings; they know what cold is like.
When the ambient temperature gets to -20F, every Minnesotan and North Dakotan know the following:
· Every mechanical device is subject to extreme stress. Engines are difficult to start. Think of this; when you start your car an 800 degree explosion takes place inside a piston that is -20 degrees. That’s stress. Even after your engine starts the car creeps forward with grunts and groans as stiff grease turns in bearings. There is nothing mechanical that likes extreme cold.
· Boiled Water Turns Instantly to Vapor. When it is -20 you can take a pan of rapidly boiling water outside, throw the water in the air and none of it will hit the ground. As soon as the boiling water (nearly a gas) hits the cold air, it vaporizes with a gigantic hiss into an impressive steam trail in the air; nothing will touch the ground if the temperature is cold enough.
· Water Pipes Freeze and Break. As I’m writing this blog, for the past three hours I’ve been using a hair dryer and a fan to thaw out a frozen pipe in my home. I believe I’ve caught it this one before the pipe splits open, but only when the pipe thaws out will I know for sure. If I’m lucky the pipe will thaw out and work perfectly. If I’m unlucky water will spray out all over the room. The only solution is to sit by the pipe and wait until the ice “breaks loose”. If you aren’t there when the ice melts, you could return to a room flooded with water. It is one thing to sit up with a sick child; quite another to sit up until 2am waiting for a pipe to thaw.
· High temperatures are life-threatening but low temperatures are fatal. Sometimes people will debate which is worse, extreme heat or extreme cold. High temperatures and humidity are undoubtedly life-threatening, but it you’ve got a shade tree and enough cold water, you will probably survive. If temperatures are extremely low and you don’t find an external source of heat, you will suffer hypothermia, followed by death. Furthermore, shade trees are free and water is almost free. External sources of heat cost a lot of money, but if you want to live, you must pay the price.
The good news in all of this is that natural gas in the United States is cheap and falling in price. That’s because of a process called hydraulic fracturing, sometimes known as fracking. All I can say tonight, as I sit with my frozen pipes is…”Let’s keep on fracking!”