Dear America: Iowa laughs at your “polar vortex”

Polar vortex strikes 9th circle of hell. Film at 11.

I don’t want to make light of the cold snap sweeping the eastern half of the country. I know it’s dangerous and I hope everyone reading is warm and safe.

That said, the issue here isn’t the cold. It’s the level of preparedness. I spent two winters in Iowa while getting my MA at Iowa State in Ames. And I’m here to tell you, what the rest of you are calling a “polar vortex” Iowans call “January.” Those who have been around me when the subject of cold weather came up at any point since 1989 have heard this rant. Probably word for word.

You simply don’t know what cold is. We had a week one time – January or February of 1988, I think – where the high temperature was -5º. Not wind chill, but temperature. For the week. And that was the daytime high. One night I was working the 10pm-2am shift at KUSR, the campus radio station, and the temp was something like -20º and the wind was gusting at 40mph and it was humid. I don’t know for sure how the math works but it felt like -90º wind chill. I’m telling you, there is nothing between Ames, Iowa and the North Pole to slow the wind down.

Of course, the truth is that -90º doesn’t actually feel much different from -30º. I mean, numb is numb, right? The main difference is how many seconds it takes for exposed flesh to start falling off your body.

A few days later the Arctic chill let up. I remember leaving the house to go to school and it was noticeably warmer. I thought that if it kept warming up it might be shirtsleeve weather by 2:00. On the drive in the radio station did the weather. It was 0º. 0º with no wind actually felt warm.

Looking back it’s possible that I may be remembering things a tad more extremely than the meteorological data will support. If so, apologies for exaggerating. But I’m not exaggerating much, I promise you, and if you know Iowans don’t take my word for it – go ask them.

All of which is to say, I’m looking at the temperatures being reported around the country and thanks to those two winters in the 9th circle of hell I have a different idea about what constitutes cold. Heck, I spent a lot of time while I was married in Gunnison, CO (where my ex-wife is from). Gunnison is frequently the coldest place in the nation, with nighttime temps dipping under -20º. But it’s dry and when the wind isn’t blowing it’s not that bad.

I guess the point here is technical, and perhaps tediously so. But the problem America has right now isn’t that it’s cold, which it is. It’s that places that aren’t used to it are being subjected to your routine, garden variety Iowa cold and they aren’t prepared for it. Think of this as a winter variant on the old “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” line that makes you want to punch people during summer. So bundle up. Layers – lots of layers. And maybe a warm dog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go walk to school. Six miles. Uphill. Both ways.

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9 thoughts on “Dear America: Iowa laughs at your “polar vortex””

  1. And immediately the dogs start barking, “SEE SEE we told you! Global warming is bullshit!!” and then calmer voices say, “Please don’t confuse weather with climate”… all to no avail because ears and eyes and minds seem to be useless vestigial remnants for some.

    I’ve been Elk hunting in Northwestern Colorado with 18 below F temps and 20 MPH plus winds. I remember the fresh coffee brewed not 3 hours prior, frozen solid in the thermos, inside the truck, with the motor running and heater going. Snow gets very very crunchy at those temps!

  2. Sam, you are absolutely right. I lived around the corner from you Winter of ’88, and it was miserable for a couple of days. It wasn’t the first time I’d lived through windchills that bad. Being prepared is the best defense. I wore lots of layers to work today. You’d think it wouldn’t affect the temp of an ice rink, but it was about 15 degrees below the normal chill – typing on a laptop is hard when wearing mittens.

  3. And what, if anything, does any of this have to do with the fact that the Iowa caucus now routinely endorsed the looniest of the Republican right–Michelle Bachmann last time, if I recall. Do brains get frozen, or what?

    1. We were caucusing with the GOP. I was a Republican back then – braindead little Reaganite, yes I was. The place was packed with Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp wackadoos. Somehow I got elected as a rep to the county convention. Supporting – get this – Howard Baker.

      You’d have loved me back then.

  4. Actually, my first winter in the north I was stranded at -27 below on a farm in Illinois. three feet of snow in the driveway, snow so high on the roads that you couldn’t see at intersections, like driving through tunnels. snow blowing like crazy, couldn’t see the barn from the house. our landlord kept sheep but couldnt get there, so we had to get up every two hours to go get the lambs and dry them off so they wouldn’t freeze. We had an old volkswagen, a young child and were marooned in a drafty old farmhouse in the middle of the frozen tundra. it was intense.

    But we never lost power. Right now hre in s. indiana, we don’t have power and it’s a whole different deal. the situation isnt nearly as dangerous as 1981 in st. anne, illinois (iowa east,) but it’s more intense

    i’m also twice as old now

  5. I just helped a friend move from Iowa to SE Kansas last Saturday, He’s loving the weather down here, even with the extreem cold (for us). We’ll be in the 40s by the end of the week.

    Sam, you were a Reaganite! I’m impressed! Seems like I was a Kemp fan. And I once had a car given to me that had a Pat Robertson bumper sticker.

  6. Native of North Iowa here, and ISU graduate. Winter in Ames is considerably milder than where I grew up.

    Many of the loudest complainers are victims of their own refusal to adapt. If you :

    replace cotton clothes with wool or acrylic where posssible
    replace tight pants and shirts with two loose layers
    wear a sweater
    get a real winter coat (extends lower than belt) with ample room for the sweater
    get real insulated winter boots (Sorels are for use. Uggs are for fashion)
    wear a large, wool stocking cap, doubled over the ears and back of the neck
    wear insulated gloves, or mittens

    you’ll be able to sled or walk or skate or shovel for an hour or more without great distress.

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