The Polar Vortex as Seen from Finland

People have asked me to comment on the polar vortex that’s freezing North America. Presumably this is because I’m in Finland, which has a colder climate. I think the expectation is that I’ll poke fun at people in the upper Midwest and Canada and tell them that they don’t understand what “real cold” is. I’m not going to do that.

For a start, it doesn’t get that cold here in central Finland. This is my fifth winter here, and the worst I’ve seen is around -22°F. That’s bad enough, I got first-degree frostbite, but it’s nowhere near the -60°F they’re calling for in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. No, we don’t shut things down for snow, because the entire country would be closed from December through May. But there is infrastructure here to deal with that.

The Polar Vortex as Seen from Finland

There’s a saying in the Nordics that there’s no such thing a bad weather, only bad clothing. I got frostnip not because it was cold, but because I wasn’t dressed properly. The weather report said it was supposed to be around 0°F, so I bundled up for that. It ended up being -16°F, and what I was wearing was not adequate. I was only outside for 20 to 30 minutes. If I’d have been out longer I might have ended up in the hospital.

The recent government shutdown illustrated how many people in the United States live paycheck to paycheck. I doubt that many people can afford to just run out and buy the gear necessary to be outside in the extreme cold. They can’t call in sick to work, because they don’t have paid time off and don’t want to risk getting fired. People who rely on public transportation will have to stand outside waiting for buses and trains.

From experience I know how many homes and apartments in the US still have drafty single-pane windows. Those don’t do a great job of keeping out the cold. Many people won’t turn up the heat. They’re afraid they won’t be able to afford the gas or electric bill. There are people who will do dumb things, like turn on the oven for extra warmth, light fires in fireplaces that haven’t had the chimney cleaned in years, or resort to other dangerous things.

Be Kind

Climate scientists say that the polar vortex is going to be the new normal for North America. Rather than taking a victory lap because you think cold weather disproves climate change, why not start making plans to deal with it? Make sure building are properly insulated, and that people can get the right kind of clothing. Secure the water pipes, electrical wiring, and gas lines so vital utilities aren’t disrupted. Overhaul the roads, bridges, and tunnels so they can handle the extreme temperatures without crumbling and collapsing.

I’m glad there’s an ocean between me and the willfully ignorant asshats making “Where’s global warming now?” comments. Aren’t they clever? I want to punch them in the mouth. This isn’t just one particularly hard winter. People are probably going to die, and your response is to act like this validates your deliberate misunderstanding of the difference between weather and climate.

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