What winter does to Canada and vice versa

HAL TENNANT January 7 1961

What winter does to Canada and vice versa

HAL TENNANT January 7 1961

What winter does to Canada and vice versa


After three hundred and fifty winters. Canadians ought to be able to face almost any degree of cold or any amount of snow. Instead, we’ve become world champions at avoiding winter. It’s doubtful if any other people on earth even come close to matching what we spend in evading, combating, and shielding ourselves from, a cold climate.

Most of us don’t even think about winter if we can help it, but if we did we would find some interesting facts to mull over. What price, for instance, do we pay for running an industrialized nation in a land Voltaire dismissed as “a few acres of snow”? The sum is far too complex to calculate, but it must be fantastic. We spend a billion dollars a year just keeping our houses warm, and probably that much again heating factories, warehouses, stores, offices and schools. We will pay $57 million this winter to plow, sand and salt our streets, roads and highways. (Even “balmy” Vancouver pays $150,000 for snow removal in a bad year.) Without winter to contend with we could knock $240 million off the $1.2 billion we’re now spending each year on roadbuilding and repairs. Part of this twenty-percent premium goes into the roadbeds, which have to be fifty percent thicker than those in California to withstand the heaving of frost.

Winter unemployment is another costly puzzle, but for the 1958-59 season, Ottawa has reckoned the loss in wages and salaries alone at $275 million. That’s enough to buy 22,900 houses worth $12,000 each, or to put 45,800 students through four years’ university on scholarships of $ 1,500 a year. A thousand other Canadians, presumably with steady jobs, have meanwhile sacrificed $300,000 for motorized garage doors controlled by buttons on their dashboards. These $300 devices save their owners from stepping out of their cars onto their snow-packed driveways.

A more widely overrated protection against winter is food. Although we don’t draw the sharp line we used to between summer and winter fare, we still eat heavier meals and more hot dishes in winter — fifty percent more hot cereal, thirty percent more canned and packaged soups. “People who work indoors — and even many who work outside under today’s conditions — have no CONTINUED ON PAGE 80

Here report on

Did you know that Canada's roadbeds have to be 50% thicker than California's? Hot porridge won't keep you warm for more than ten minutes ? Canadians spend at least $2 billion a year pretending our climate is like anyone else's ?


continued from page 19

What winter does to Canada — and vice versa continued from page 19

Physical efficiency drops because we use up energy to keep warm

physiological need for more food in winter,” says Dr. Barbara McLaren, a nutritionist who is director of the Faculty of Household Science at the University of Toronto. “But perhaps there is psychological need.”

Even the heat value in hot food is largely psychological, according to Dr. F. A. Sellers, a Toronto pharmacologist renowned for his experiments in the effects of cold on animals. By the time you get up from the breakfast table, he says, your body has already burned up all the heat from your oatmeal.

But there’s no doubt we need a little comforting to help us put up with colds, influenza, sinusitis, diarrhea, drying of the skin, haii' and mucous membranes, TV leg, diseases of the gallbladder and bile ducts, gastric and duodenal ulcers, measles, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox, typhus, relapsing fever, rabies, enteritis, hyperhidrosis of the hands and feet, keratosis pilaris, urticaria, secondary telangiectasis, and cold sores, all of which are more common in winter than summer. Not to mention the greater risk of suffocation, accidental poisoning, household mishaps and fires.

(One bright note: only a very small minority of Canadians suffer from kayakphobia. the fear of venturing into open sea in a kayak.)

In return for these risks, we like to believe we work better in the cold. Thinkers may, but doers don’t. Our body movements become livelier, but our physical efficiency drops because we’re using up a greater amount of energy to keep warm. Ellsworth Huntington, an American geographer who wrote several books on the influence of climate on people, put the ideal temperature for physical work at sixty-four degrees. For mental work, he said, the brain functions best at thirtyeight degrees; but he never did say whether he'd tried writing outdoors when the mercury stood at thirty-eight.

Some physiologists have said that women are most fertile when the temperature outdoors is sixty to sixty-five degrees, but that the most vigorous, long-lived children are conceived when the outdoors temperature is only forty. Skeptical colleagues like to ask how the facts were gathered on these delicate matters. What has been established is that extreme temperatures, hot or cold, can cause infertility. A stallion shipped in an overheated boxcar lost its ability to sire foals. Eskimo women commonly become infertile in winter. Low temperatures also slow down our body functions. Hair, fingernails and children grow more slowly in winter.

Some psychiatrists think winter intensifies the fear we’ve had of fire since primitive times, and that it brings forth instinctive fears of cold, loss of the sun (“a father figure”), and darkness. For the mentally ill, the result can be dangerous. In Chicago, one twenty-two-year-old patient had six violent seizures —• all on days when the temperature outside was unusually low. Another patient, a middleaged woman, became homicidal three times in one month — each time on nights that were among the coldest in years.

Our rate of suicides increases every spring, and the accepted explanation is that many suicides are reactions to the long, depressing confinement of winter. Beauty-parlor operators count on getting

extra business in February and March from fidgety women who want the color and style of their hair changed, apparently just to break the monotony.

Some Canadians, at least, are getting more fidgety every winter. Perhaps because they know they can get away from the cold weather nowadays, they’re not as resigned to it as they used to be. “My husband comes from Manitoba, so he should be used to the winter,” an Ontario housewife told me. “But now he just can’t stand it any more. He just has to go south for a while in February or March.” Her husband is only forty-three.

That cooped-up feeling seldom bothered our pioneers. Besides getting outdoors oftener than we do and toughening their bodies, they conditioned their minds to the inevitable hardships of winter. They joked about the cold (“Even our shadows froze to the ground and had to be pried loose with pickaxes”) and tried to think of nice things to say about blizzards. Pursuing this Pollyanna philosophy, one chronicler of the times reached the conclusion that getting lost alone in the winter wilderness of seventeenth-century Quebec was a beatific experience. He tells how a priest named Père de Noué looked when a French soldier and two Indians found him, near the trail between Sorel and St. Ours:

He was on his knees, with his arms folded, in an attitude of prayer, his eyes open and looking upward with a smile on his face. His features looked so pleasantly calm that both soldier and savages knelt respectfully at a distance in silence, till the continued stillness and immobility convinced them he had frozen to death.

But we, too, have our own odd notions about winter. For instance, a hunter who sits out in the cold, swigging from a bottle to keep warm, needs a few lessons in basic physiology, if not in his province’s liquor laws. The alcohol will warm him, all

right, but as soon as he increases the difference between his body temperature and the air temperature, he begins losing body heat faster than ever. Besides, one of the peculiarities of alcohol is that it warms a drinker’s hands and feet faster than it warms his body. This gives him a false sensation of warmth all over. Not realizing the trunk of his body is even colder than it was before he took the drink, he’s likely to suffer a chill. The same drink would do him a lot more good if he saved it until he was back in the lodge, where his body could retain much more of the heat from the alcohol.

Even hunters without bottles often ignore one of these basic principles and insist that as long as their hands and feet are warm, their bodies can put up with almost any amount of cold. The fact is that the body, having a larger surface, can lose heat at a proportionately faster rate; so keeping the trunk warm is most important. Anybody who ignores this principle runs a greater risk of suffering seriously from other ailments, such as pneumonia, or heart strain brought on by unaccustomed exertion.

Conscientious mothers often make the opposite mistake, wrapping their youngsters in swaddling clothes that entrap sweat and excess body heat. “It’s a wonder some active kids don’t collapse from heat prostration,” says Dr. John Beaton, a biochemist with the Defense Research Board, who advises soldiers on what to wear in the Arctic.

Scientists also have some disturbing things to say about the old belief that extra body fat is protection against the cold. Two English doctors named Goldsmith and Lewis, presumably very thin chaps themselves, came back from the Antarctic and reported last spring: “Careful observation during our expeditions did not show that men who were overweight had any special advantages.”

It’s a common belief that women, having more body fat than men, are less susceptible to the cold. Even if they are (a point that nobody has conclusively established) it may not be their body fat that gives them this advantage. One widely accepted theory is that women, generally shorter than men, lose less body heat because they have less skin surface. But physiologists are still arguing this point, leaving a clear field for any researcher who would like to go around asking tall skinny women if they feel cold.

Another thing the experts like to argue about is whether heredity has anything to do with a person’s ability to withstand the cold. The majority don’t think it has. Dr. John Beaton, the biochemist, believes Eskimos get along well in the cold because they know how, not because they have any racial advantage. He points out that Mountics and trappers have learned to get along in the Arctic as well as Eskimos. Even the extent to which our bodies can become accustomed to the cold is less than most people probably imagine. Most of us don’t spend enough time at a stretch in the cold to establish much immunity against it. And even outdoorsmen lose their immunity over the summer. Dr. E. A. Sellers, a pharmacologist, found that rats exposed to the cold reach the limit of their adaptive ability in about six weeks and lose it after only two weeks back in a warm room. Sellers sees no reason to Relieve people arc much different from ra.s in this way.

A cautious minority report on this point comes from Dr. J. S. Hart of the National Research Council, who went to Australia three years ago to find out how the aborigines survived while sleeping nude outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures. Hart and the other members of his party found they could sleep naked neatbonfires. but without the fires they stayed awake, shivering, all night. Since the aborigines slept on, even without fires. Hart says he suspects they enjoy "a true racial difference” in ability to adjust to cold.

In theory, at least, there are medical ways of increasing a man's adjustment to cold. Dr. Sellers believes injections of cortisone and thyroxine together would prolong the life of a person suffering from extreme cold. Massive injections of cortical hormones revived a seemingly frozen corpse in Chicago a few years ago, Dr. Sellers thinks that rats injected with thyroxine and cortisone are able to survive the cold longer than other rats by converting their body fat quickly into energy. The two drugs might be useful in Arctic survival kits, but not in normal situations; their side effects arc too dangerous. "Anyhow,” says Sellers, "it's easier to put on an extra pair of socks than to give yourself an injection."

Some early Canadian settlers didn't think they’d have to bother adjusting much. Many people, including eminent scientists of the day. thought the forest made the weather cold; once they got some of those damned trees out of the way, they believed, the climate would be as mild as northern Europe’s. Even after lumberjacks had been collecting logs and blisters for a couple of centuries. a physician-historian named William Kelly reminded the Quebec Literary and Historical Society in 1836 that "much importance is still generally attached to

the effects of clearing, and great hopes [are] entertained of the amount of amelioration [of the climate] which will result when the country is fully cultivated." (Today we know the opposite is true: temperature and snowfall help determine the extent of a forest and the size and species of its trees. Logging alters the runoff of melting snow but doesn't affect temperatures or future snowfalls.)

But these early settlers weren't anymore naïve than the loud minority who insisted in the 1920s that commercial radio signals, in widespread use for the first time, were making our climate snowier and colder. Their spiritual descendants popped up a generation later to blame nuclear explosions for every new turn of the weather. Meteorologists say there isn’t a shred of evidence to support either claim. Apart from hit-and-miss attempts at rainmaking by seeding clouds with silver-iodide crystals, nothing wc do has any effect on the climate, except in one limited way. The exception is the heat we generate in our big cities: it's enough to raise the winter temperature in the immediate area by about one degree. This difference isn't important if the temperature is. say. zero: but at thirty-two degrees, it means the difference between freezing and thawing. That's why it's common to sec a city get rain while its suburbs get snow. It's the same snowfall, but over the city the snow turns to rain before it reaches the ground.

Scientists have suggested at least three ways we might make our winters warmer, but not everybody thinks the schemes are practical — or worth the risks.

Of the first of them. Howard T. Orville, an aerologist who was one of the U.S. Navy's foremost weather experts during World War II. says that while atomic bombs could melt the polar icecap, the

melting land ice that ran off into the sea might raise ocean levels enough to inundate our coastal cities.

The most widely publicized idea is the Russian proposal to dam Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia and pump Pacific water northward to warm the Arctic. Three Canadian and U.S. scientists say the damming alone would warm up the Canadian east coast, but they’re not sure what else it would do. And Dr.

M. J. Dunbar, a McGill University marine biologist who is familiar with Arctic conditions, reckons that a thousand of the world's biggest pumps would have to work for seventy years to warm even superficial layers of Arctic ice. Since we're not sure what we’d get for the money, the price of the project sounds a little steep: $35 billion.

Another recent Russian proposal was to coat the Arctic ice with a black substance that would absorb enough extra heat from the sun to make the ice melt. I his idea brought screams of dissent from American scientists, who warned that since much of the melting ice would evaporate, there would be more snow falling than there is now'. First thing we knew, we'd be into a new Ice Age.

The Russians have also annoyed a few

patriotic Canadians by recording colder temperatures than the coldest ones on our records. Our record low w'as eightyone below, at Snag. Yukon, on February 3. 1947. In the USSR, it has been ninety below, at both Verkoyanks and Oimekon. The world record goes to the Antarctic, with three readings lower than a hundred below. The coldest was 125 below.

But cold isn't a true test of winter misery. What counts is wind-chill, a measure of the ability of wind and cold, combined. to rob a person's body of heat. By this yardstick. Snag is a better place to spend a winter than Winnipeg, which has one of the severest w ind - chill records among the world's large cities. (A settlers’ guide, issued by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1882. described Manitoba weather as "seven months of Arctic winter and five months of cold weather.”)

Canadians on the prairies reckon windchill by adding the temperature below zero to the wind speed; a temperature of ten below plus a twenty-mile-an-hour w ind, for example, equals a wind-chill of thirty. When 1 asked one of Canada's senior meteorologists about this popular rule-of-thumb, he laughed ami pointed to a complex meteorological table. This, lie said, was the only way to reckon windchill. But then I gave him a few sample temperatures and wind speeds, to see how far the laymen’s version varied from the scientific formula. He was surprised to find that the two sets of answers corresponded remarkably.

"1 must remember that from now' on.” he said. "It will come in handy any time I don't have a wind-chill table in front of me.”

Which. 1 thought, was a fair indication that there are things about winter that a lot of people have never bothered to find out. Even weathermen, if