Monday, December 15, 2014

"Dry Cold" and "Wet Cold"


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.

First Snow on the Mountains
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.

First Snow on the Mountains
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.

First Snow on the Mountains
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!

38 comments:

  1. I did actually think, when you were describing bundling up, that it sounded like you were overdoing it. Here in Pittsburgh I would wear maybe one layer of wool with a cycling jacket and insulated tights down to freezing, adding another silk layer if it's colder than that. The hills here make it unnecessary to do more.
    But I did get a surprise the other day -- it was above freezing and wet, but felt much colder than I'd expected. I suppose that's the cold wet you're talking about. Still, a few hills worked great as a way to warm up.

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  2. When I was in graduate school, I used to have to spend a lot of time in a "cold room"-- a refrigerated room in which to do biochemical fractionation, which was sensitive to warm temperatures. I used to get chilled to the bone! It didn't seem to matter how many layers I had on... after a few hours I'd be so chilled it would take hours after getting home in the evening before I'd feel warm again. Then we moved to a new facility that had a humidity-controlled cold room, in which the moisture content was kept low. What a difference! I could stay reasonably warm all day with just a thin lab coat.

    The same idea plays out with cycling. On those above-freezing days when the humidity is high, it feels worse than when the temps dip below freezing and the moisture precipitates out. But then when it drops to the teens... that's another story.

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  3. Ah! Exactly the weather I use to feel when I lived in New Orleans. The temperature rarely gets below freezing but that part of the country gets a lot of humidity. So, 45 degrees is really very cold feeling. Cold to the bones.

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  4. As you say, it's not bizarro at all. Anyone who has lived through wet and mild winter regions knows this, especially if they've also experienced drier, colder regions before or after. The bone chills I received in the Pacific Northwest were far more intense and lasting than anything experienced in the colder northeast (which were painful, instead).

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  5. Not so sure this is a "psychophysiological" effect. Water conducts heat much faster than air. Wet air is going to suck the heat out of your body much faster than dry air. There's a reason you could live naked in 35 deg. air for hours, but be dead after a couple minutes in 35 deg. water.

    But technicalities aside, yes, there is nothing worse than cold, wet weather.

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  6. What are those awesome boots, V?

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  7. At least your hand knuckles are not bleeding from cracking skin in winter. You may think that Boston's weather was "better" but 0F and 20% humidity is no fun either.

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    1. Ok so my face bleeds a little in Boston ...At least I'm not trembling uncontrollably while trying to corner!

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    2. you guys make winter cycling sound so appealing! ;)))

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    3. But think of the street cred!

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  8. This requires no psychophysiological pyrotechnical blog post - cold is cold!

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    1. On the other hand, some seem find a pyromaniacal approach more fitting. Strangest things burning in people's yards all over the place today.

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  9. Wet cold, yes, that's the worst.

    For several years as a child we lived in a slough, I'll never forget having to bundle up in layer upon layer of newspaper before wading out to lead the eels to pasture. My, that was brisk!

    I was always rather envious of a family of cobblers that lived across the road in a lovely old Beech tree, they could climb up out of all but the worst fog. Three generations huddled together, snug in a nest of leaves and cowhides hammering away, quite the picture of domestic contentment...

    Spindizzy

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    1. At least your eels yielded to such maneuverings. Ours are completely out of hand these days.

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  10. All B.S.ing aside, wet cold IS the worst, and it doesn't take much moisture to ruin things either.

    40 degrees on a nice dry morning means I can still commute the 4 miles to work in sneakers and be laughing, but 40 degrees with a damp road means legwarmers and my insulated winter mountain bike boots. Just the mist kicked up from a dewy road is enough to take all the carefree jumping on the bike and going for a spin off the table till spring UNLESS you have good fenders.

    I've finally come around and have gone Whole Heine with Honjo's on my Mercian. I owe Jan a sandwich for hectoring me into trying those big aluminum babies. No more plastic for me, I'm never going to be without at least one fast bike with them ever again...

    Spindizzy

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    1. French fenders? Your Mercian must be livid.

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    2. French fenders, American pedals, Italian drivetrain, Japanese Handlebars, Swiss brakes and various home-made bit's of lowgrade black-smithery. It's VERY cosmopolitan. For a while I had some corks from some cheap German wine as endplugs but that started to feel like the bad sort of dumb so I pounded in some old Velox's instead.

      What really annoys that bike is how many people take one look at the downtube and want to pronounce it "Murican". As in "God bless "Murica"... Let 3 or 4 clever sparks pull that on a club century and it's all I can stand just to sit on it. Snobby old thing has no sense of humor. At. All.

      Spindizzy

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    3. OOH ooh! I hope I can be the first to correct you! Honjo's are Japanese! Not French. I can't believe I didn't get that till now. What the hell kind of pedant am I becoming...

      Spindizzy

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    4. Touché my friend. Still, your "cosmopolitan" Mercian would totally get beat up by the Mercians here in that getup.

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    5. As soon as I finish my Seven the Mercian is going to turn into the foofiest art project that ever there was. I might build the Frank Patterson Memorial Tourer with all the trad Brit Bits or it might go Stage 3 Faux French Rando Drag, either way it's going to be icky. That bike is a blank canvas just waiting to be defiled.

      Spin

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  11. I cannot tolerate humidity, hot or cold, period. Bleh!

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  12. Having commuted in both Minnesota and Virginia, I can attest to the misery that is a wet 35 to 45 degrees F and the pleasure of riding in the 20s with the appropriate balance of wind-stopping fabric and protected appendages. I would say a wet 32-40 is the worst out there for cycling, particularly where freezing surfaces on overpasses is added to the mix. But it's also striking how little one's core needs warming in comparison to the neck and hands.

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    1. I lived in Wisconsin for eight years, and commuted (9 miles each way) easily down into the -10F range. Here in New England (CT), it's much, MUCH nastier to ride in cold weather. The moisture is like a direct connection for heat-sucking.

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    2. I am learning the ways of the ice-bicyclist, having moved from coastal central CA to the Twin CIties.
      Still haven't had the nerve to take the rod-brake roadster out to tootle. I tell myself it's the -20 F conditions...

      I am really struck by the difference in humidity between the two places. Santa Cruz would get to 75-90% humidity and stay there until April. Storing your bike in an unheated garage might allow your leather saddle to bloom green and your chrome parts to grow red. And the cold (over freezing, but just barely) just never seems to leave your bones.
      Here, your sinuses seem to take the brunt, at least until the road salt goes down. Then the bike blooms red, anyway.

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  13. I dunno, everything seems to eventually find some sort of equilibrium. On those cold, damp days, when the shiver is deep in my bones after a ride home, I find the soup and conversations afterward a little more warming and rewarding. Little gifts. Despite my complaints I feel richer for the experiences. best.

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    1. Someone's making you soup?

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    2. It's made, or I make it, or we make it….What are blogs about if not sharing? The soup is best with conversation.

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    3. For what it's worth, I was making soup yesterday. Mushroom. Though not for Anon 12:24.

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    4. Bicycling in cold -- wet or dry -- goes well with soup of all kinds. A concerned neighbor actually dropped of a crock pot, and a list of recipes, on my porch. So kind, and the idea of coming home to a hot and cooked meal makes the winter commute more bearable.

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  14. I love the color and style of your outer shell. Are you able to share information about the brand?

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    1. It's a ShowersPass Rogue Hoodie, might possibly be reviewed in the future.

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    2. I love the color and style, and was wondering about the brand myself. Would appreciate a review (if it's not too much to ask)!

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  15. I am also an expat living in Ireland, just across the Foyle in Donegal, I've been here nearly 14 years, I know a lot of others who have come from all over the world and made Ireland their home. We are currently working on a series of radio documentaries on just that subject called "How Did I End Up Here?" do you know how many I know who came for the weather????..NONE

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  16. Erm, I sort of came of the weather! In part at least.

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  17. I guess I run warm because I can ride all day in 45 degrees here in Virginia. I typically commute NW into the wind, so the blustery dry days are what feels colder to me.

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  18. I bet no one else is wearing these, but I love them here in the wet cold capital of the world, Seattle. My leather Converse "City Hikers" work great in the wet cold now that I've committed to platform pedals.

    Top side, I like real, name brand, Gortex Windstopper fleece over multiple layers. Much better than full blown Gortex for me, as it breathes better.

    Below the waist, I wear the AreoTech Commuter Pedal Pusher Capris over my padded bike shorts and tights. I like that they have a tight enough weave to block some wind and shed some rain. Plus I appreciate all the pockets they include.

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  19. Sure. I knew two guys way back who had just come down from Thule to Copenhagen (with its almost Irishly wet climate). They told me that never before in their life had they been as cold during winter as here.

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