Snow day!

Or rather a cold day. My university has decided to close today because of the frigid temperatures that are all across this part of the country. It actually is a bright sunny morning with the kind of clear blue sky that one gets in winter and is quite beautiful, with white snow covering everything and glistening in the morning light. As long as one is indoors looking out, it is gorgeous but deceptive. For anyone outdoors it is brutal. It is the clear skies overnight that allow for heat to radiate away more rapidly, resulting in early morning temperatures of -8oF and today’s daytime high will only reach 4oF.

The coldest day in history in Cleveland was Wednesday, January 19, 1994 when the early morning temperature reached a low of -20oF. I remember that day well for two reasons. At that time, the president of our university was a genial physicist. He was also an immigrant from Norway and he thought our winters were puny affairs compared to what he grew up with and he never closed the university for bad weather, ever. He made sure that all the walks were cleaned and the buildings heated and you were expected to show up.

I had to teach a 9:00 am physics class in a large auditorium and it so happened that it had an emergency exit that opened directly onto the fire escape. For some reason, that door would not shut properly, perhaps due to ice forming in the gap, and so an icy draft swept through the room throughout the entire time. I taught wearing my heavy jacket and the students sat huddled in their jackets taking notes. Looking back, I think we were crazy. The university should have closed but at that time all of us, including the students, took a kind of pride in our toughness, surviving the trek across the campus in bone-chilling winds to get to the lecture hall and then suffering through the lectures.

But that was not all. At home we had just got a new puppy, Copper. I had never had a dog before and was reluctant to do so but my daughters kept pleading with me to get one and of course I relented. He had arrived a couple of days earlier and so of course had to be house-trained which meant us being on the alert for any sign that he had to go and quickly whisking him outside on a leash. Since my daughters were too young to do this, the task fell on me and I recall going out multiple times with Copper on that bitterly cold night.

Of course, since Copper was a puppy, everything was a great and exciting new adventure and he would enjoy going out and frolicking in the cold dark night while I, shivering, tried to encourage him to finish up so that we could go back into the warm house. Oddly enough, that experience of going outside multiple times that night and freezing together bonded me to Copper and I became extremely attached to him. His eventual death was devastating to me and it took me nearly two years to get over it and get Baxter the Wonder Dog, the current ruler of our home.


  1. Trebuchet says

    Cold weather in Cleveland is, of course, proof that global warming is a hoax! And Al Gore is fat!

  2. invivoMark says

    4 degrees and you close campus? It was a high of -16 (with wind chill down to -40), and a low of -23 (-50 with wind) in Madison yesterday, and campus didn’t close.

    I mean, I’m sure someone in Minnesota or Fairbanks would scoff at -16 degree weather. Cold is a relative thing.

    But really, 4 degrees ain’t cold.

  3. Brandon says

    I don’t know exactly why, but your personal stories are always really interesting reads for me. Just a really nice human element that I can relate to easily. Thanks!

  4. Mano Singham says


    I think the governing rule is how far from the local norm the weather is, not on some absolute scale. Depending on the region, people have certain types of clothes and hats and gloves, certain types of equipment (such a block heaters and snow plows) and so on, that enable them to navigate the usual weather. But when it goes far outside that, they are not equipped to deal with it, even though people in colder regions are. So if you have the right types of jackets and gloves and hats, you would be fine but there is fear that children going to school here may not have ones that are sufficiently insulating. We have had car batteries dying because of the cold and because we do not have block heaters.

    It is just basic economics that we tend to use our resources to prepare to deal with what we are likely to encounter and not go too far outside that range.

  5. invivoMark says

    Oh, I understand all that. I lived in Arizona for four years. A cold day to us was 50 degrees, with the temperature maybe breaking freezing at night. I even hear it snowed once while I was there, but I must have been in the wrong part of town to see it.

    I also understand closing down for a small amount of snow if roads become unsafe and can’t be efficiently plowed.

    But not for 4 degree weather. I’ve never seen anyone need a block heater to start their car in 4 degrees. (I don’t even think I know anyone who owns a block heater around here.) It might be unpleasant to stand in, but if you have a decent coat (or a couple jackets/sweatshirts to layer up) and a hat, it’s not dangerous. I didn’t even own a serious winter coat until this year. I just don’t understand closing down for 4 degree weather.

    Of course, we’ve been having single-digit weather since November. It’s been one of the colder winters I’ve experienced.

  6. sirhc58 says

    I’m just surprised that this is considered a cold winter for Cleveland. I thought your winters were a little harsher. I got accustomed to week-long lows (before wind chill) in the -40°C range when I lived in Northern Ontario. Today is not too bad, with temps of -14°C plus wind chill. There’s a bite to the wind, true, but the real problem is the ice underfoot. Still, if one is unprepared for cooler weather, it can be deadly.

  7. says

    Mano Singham (#4) –

    It is just basic economics that we tend to use our resources to prepare to deal with what we are likely to encounter and not go too far outside that range.

    Exactly. My former town in Canada had multiple machines for road clearing in winter and a multimillion dollar annual budget to pay for it. If that town’s average snow fall had hit Vancouver, even without the cold, it would have shut the city down for days.

    The most amusing thing is the driving, watching people unused to snow ending up in slow motion collisions, the sort you can see coming but do nothing to stop (under 20kmh, and no one gets hurt, of course). So many people have no experience with snow or ice and the wrong tires for it. For those used to snow, power sliding around corners (deliberate, controlled skidding) is a normal part of winter driving.

  8. Kimpatsu says

    For those of us not loving in Belize or the USA, Mano’s temperatures are as follows:
    -8F= -22.2C
    4F= -15.5C
    -20F= -28.8C
    This has been a public service announcement from the rest of the world.

  9. boadinum says

    Minus 40? You were lucky. When I was a lad growing up on Titan it never got up above minus 240…and we lived at the bottom of a lake. A methane lake! And every morning we had to get up before we went to bed and clean the lake! *

    *Adapted from Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s Four Yorkshiremen skit.

    Stay warm, everybody!

  10. boadinum says

    left0ver1under #7:

    There is no mention of where this video was taken, but you’re quite right to point out that it must be a place where snow is rare and experienced winter drivers even rarer.

    While I was watching each inevitable crash I noticed that every vehicle involved had one thing in common: they all had the brakes locked on so hard that the wheels weren’t spinning. Congratulations, non-winter-drivers, you have just converted your car into an object with the agility and steerability of a brick.

    And another thing…if you find yourself on a street with multiple car accidents, it is usually a good idea to find an alternate route instead of trying to weave through the chaos.

  11. Mano Singham says

    @left0ver1under and boadinum,

    I noticed that the very first car was moving forward and was a new Accord that must have had anti-lock brakes. So why were they not working?

    There is a steep hill that runs upwards that I have to take on my way home from work that is a major artery for commuters. It is truly scary on bad weather days to see cars sliding all over. I often stay in my office until very late just so that the roads are relatively empty by the time I get there.

  12. says

    Kimpatsu (#8) –

    For those of us not loving in Belize or the USA,

    Don’t forget Liberia. And it’s only in 2013 that Burma finally got with the program.

    Or were you actually talking about sex and romance in holiday locations?

    Mano’s temperatures are as follows:
    -8F= -22.2C
    4F= -15.5C
    -20F= -28.8C
    This has been a public service announcement from the rest of the world.

    Not to go off on a tangent, but can people (still) go through college and university in the US without being exposed to metric nor required to learn it? Anyone who’s done college level scientific calculations in both systems will tell you it’s far easier working with metric than imperial/US measurement. It’s the difference between having hair and pulling it out.

    Even among those who don’t major in the sciences, how can they not be familiar with it and be allowed to graduate in this day and age? That’s not as bad as denying the fact of geological and evolutionary sciences, but it’s just about as bad as not having learnt a second language.

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