A couple of days ago I woke to a beautiful sight: For the first time this season, the mountains outside my window were capped with a dusting of snow. Across the Lough Foyle, the hills of Donegal stood stark and chalky against a steel gray sky. And just beyond my front door, the ridgeline of Binevenagh was outlined in white - so crisply and precisely, it was as if someone had taken a technical pen to a photograph.
It had not been an impressive snowfall volume-wise. It was the novelty, the freshness and surprise of it, that had made an impact - marking a transition. That morning, a soft and inexplicably festive blueness permeated the atmosphere. And the sight of snow was like a bell ringing, signaling that something was different.
The air itself was different as well: crisp, dry, and hollow, with a chill that seemed to suck the breath out of my mouth when I opened it. My face and hands tingled, and steam enveloped me like fog as I stepped outside holding a cup of coffee.
I checked the temperature and saw that it was just below freezing - a good bit colder than it had been so far. On the news they reported having salted the roads. With this in mind, I began to get dressed for a trip into town. On went the 3 layers of wool, thin to thick. On went the heavy-duty socks and boots. On went the hat and scarf and hooded jacket and gloves, everything tucked in and overlapping, until, thoroughly bundled and sealed from the elements, I emerged ready to hop on the bike and brace this first real day of winter.
Now let me explain about the winter months in Northern Ireland. Except for up in the hills, it rarely snows. And the temperature rarely drops below freezing. Last winter we had temperatures in the 40s-50s °F most of the time. Sounds downright mild, right?
Unfortunately, wrong! Because there is something about the weather in this place, that makes the winter feel much, much colder subjectively than what the temperature gauge says, even when windchill is not a factor. So, for instance, on a 40°F December day in Northern Ireland I would typically dress similarly as I would on a 25°F day in New England, in order to feel comfortable outdoors. It was based on such experience, that I assumed this freezing morning would feel colder still and did some serious bundling up...
...with the hilarious result of having to stop every 10 minutes and remove another item of clothing form my overheated body, until my saddlebag bulged with discarded layers and my outer shell was, well, but a shell! Even my hat, soggy with sweat, soon had to come off, as I cruised into town in the kind of cozy comfort I had not known since the sunny days of early Autumn.
So let me get this straight, Irish weather... When the temperature falls below freezing, it gets warmer?! What sort of bizarro world is this?
But even as I furrowed my sweaty brow, I knew what was going on. When the temperature fell below freezing, the air grew dryer. And as those who live in cold climates will tell you, "dry cold" is easier to cope with than "wet cold."
This old fashioned notion is not unfounded. Research in various fields confirms that humidity exaggerates our psychophysiological perception of temperature at both ends of the spectrum - so that a warm humid day can feel unbearably hot, and a cold humid day can feel worse than freezing. In the winter, the part of Ireland where I live specialises in the latter. Days on which the temperature hovers just above freezing - maximising the chill while still allowing for humidity to creep in - are the worst. On such occasions, I have worn copious amounts of clothing and still the horrible damp cold would penetrate down to my very bones, no matter how hard I'd pedal to escape it!
Truly freezing winter days are unusual here. But if they make it easier to keep warm on the bike, I welcome them with open arms. Bring on the chill and keep away the dampness. Oh the joys of the warm, cozy, manageable cold of a crisp winter's day!