07 December 2009

Life at Twenty Below

It's been a year since Montana's last cold weather. I seem to have forgotten. But soon it all comes back to me.

Stepping out this morning into the -20 deg F or colder air, I inhaled a deep breath and felt that familiar, tingling sensation as my nose hairs froze stiff.

In uptown Butte below Walkerville, exhaust heat rises from buildings and moisture condenses into graceful plumes of icy steam (lots of wood smoke haze, too):

Then there was the seemingly deafening sound of an inch of dry, powder snow ("cold smoke," as we skiers say) crunching under my boots. While skiing in these conditions, skis generate static electricity in gliding over the snow and stick because of the "electrostatic friction." Sometimes, in walking at night, I swear I have even seen the snow sparking at my heels--but that's probably just a hallucinogenic effect of the cold.

Cold air contracts (remember "PV = nRT" from your chem class?) and becomes a better conductor of sound. I could hear the routine morning signs of cars, children, dogs, and the local ravens from afar.

On the east side of Butte, the warm waters of the Berkeley Pit (a former open pit copper mine, now a toxic lake) generate the infamous pit fog that creeps down to the flats, rubbing its shoulders along neighborhoods along the way:

The bright morning sun felt warm, but in passing through a shaded area where a cold air drain (depression in the ground) lets cold, dense air flow from the hills above to the valley below, I remembered to rub my stinging cheeks so as to prevent frostbite.

The battery of a digital camera in an outside pocket will not provide enough current for the camera to function. Keep the camera in an inside pocket--which means removing mittens to fumble with buttons and zippers in order to let your fingers to sting with cold once you finally fish the camera out, turn it on, and focus.

A dog -- especially a 13-month Lab/Border Collie cross name of Mollie -- becomes especially energetic. The dense air must help her achieve aerodynamic lift and I swear she could jump over my 6-foot tall frame.

Inside, the heated air becomes super-dry and you can generate some serious sparks of static electricity just petting the dog or cat. And you quickly learn to ground yourself after taking a few steps across the carpet to welcome your wife home with a kiss!


Butte, America: it's not the Arctic, but you can feel it from here.


Judy said...

Ah! The joys of winter!!! Or not!
I was taking photos of footprints in the snow this morning. I will post some of them this afternoon.

The Hunter's Wife said...

That is cold! Brrr. Stay warm and try not to shock anyone.

mdmnm said...

Down in central NM, we think it's really cold if we get close to single digits, though they see much lower temps up in the northern part of the state. Nice description of what real cold feels like!

Max said...

We are having a cold snap here in Oregon, with lows in the 10s. The east wind coming out of the Gorge makes it feel much colder than 20 below in Butte, however.

secret agent woman said...

I keep getting stuck on the -20F.

mountain.mama said...

We'll probably go below zero tonight. I just have the hardest time adjusting to the cold and snow. Each year becomes more challenging. Ugh.

Arija said...

Ah such lovely memeories as that post brings back. At 40 below we wid nt have to go to school...
I wonder you were not wearing a balaclava over your face.
When I was little,mother made sure that only my eyes were not covered for the walk to school.
Superb photos and story.

troutbirder said...

and then you must have sent it east with heavey snow (15 inches) 40 mile an hour winds and total whiteouts. Fortunately the toxic fog didn't come with it.

Janie said...

We were 20 below one morning last week. That static electricity really puts a spark into a kiss!

ramblingwoods said...

I wondered why it seems that you can hear so much better in winter. I thought it had to do with the foliage being gone which probably plays a role...My chem class. Ouch, the one year that the biology teacher was filling in. The answer to all questions was..'it's in the book'...good thing I had a really good lab partner and that I went into special education...Michelle

Emilie Simard said...

The play you mention,written by Emma MacKenzie, may be just what I am looking for for my first year college English class. My course is based largely on our perception of our environment and I am looking for a short play to include in my class. I would like it to serve as a springboard for my students to write their own plays. If you could put me in touch with Ms. Mackenzie I would grgeatly appreciate it.


Emilie Simard