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Dave Roepke, Published January 09 2011

No place where the blast is meaner

An entire winter’s worth of snow fell last month, the sun still can’t manage to work a full 8-to-5 shift, the year’s most bone-chilling days loom ahead, the roads are perpetually slick as a car salesman, and when all this finally lifts, pretty much every area river is ripe to bust its banks.

Still, the weather could be worse, right?

This might be the vitamin D deficiency talking, but ... no. No, it could not be worse. This is it. The blast is not meaner on the other side of the fence.

“This is certainly one of the harshest habitable places people live,” said Daryl Ritchison, a WDAY meteorologist.

Not buying it? Well, fair enough. There are places with worse winters if you look far and wide, like the 9,000 miles to Antarctica.

Allan Ashworth, a North Dakota State University geosciences professor, has been to the ice sheet at the bottom of the globe six times on scientific expeditions, returning from the last trip about a month ago.

He and fellow researchers travel to Antarctica when it’s early summer there, and it’s actually pretty similar to North Dakota in January – except Ashworth and his team sleep in tents every night.

This poses some challenges. Anything that can freeze that’s not directly next to a heat source will freeze, so if peanut butter is on the menu, it’s also nestled against some skin. The morning routine includes defrosting last night’s urine so it can be poured in a barrel outside.

“I tell you, it’s hard,” Ashworth said. “What I always think about are those poor buggers who are homeless. This is what their lives are like.”

What about the Last Frontier? Unlike Antarctica, people live in Alaska for reasons unrelated to research, in actual cities and homes, and it is brutal.

“Oh, amazingly cold,” said Tim Parker, a Seattle native who’s lived in Fairbanks for 20 years.

Every winter, Fairbanks gets several days where it slips to -40, though “days” is defined loosely, as the low point of winter brings about three hours of sun.

With teeth-rattling conditions like that, there’s no question of whether to put an oil-pan or engine block heater on the vehicle, Parker said. You use both.

“The tradition up here is we never mention wind chill,” said Parker, who teaches English and journalism in Fairbanks. “The weatherman would never even dare say it. It’s almost too painful to think about.”

Eternal seers of the half-full ice cube tray, yes, there are spots that are colder. But the bummer that is winter in the Red River Valley is not a collection of data points. The agony is from the accumulation of crummy conditions and the way we respond to them.

So let’s size up some of the season’s chief miseries against the extremes elsewhere and settle the measure of our discontent in the most thoroughly unscientific way possible.

Round one: Coldness

“If you’re going to think the lower 48, we’re going to be about overall the coldest,” said Dan Riddle, a National Weather Service meteorologist who moved to Grand Forks because he actually enjoys the face-crystallizing bitterness.

This is Riddle’s dream come true in large part because it’s so far north, landlocked and not near enough to the Rockies to ever get a warm Chinook wind. However, the Red River Valley in particular is suited to frigidity. Other cities in the region may see lower lows, but heavier cold air pools in the shallow depression of the Red River’s basin, limiting the highs here, Ritchison said.

Also, we’re mighty short on pine trees. The trees absorb heat, and the barren valley provides no buffer against the wind, which makes our cold feel colder because of the effect Alaskans can’t bear to name.

Ritchison said that’s a dynamic that’s worsening as the area grows. “Most of the new subdivisions are in the open,” he said. “Everything is treeless, so you really notice it.”

When Ritchison thinks of a place that has it worse than Fargo-Moorhead, his eyes turn to a city with the same issues but farther enough north to be significantly colder: Winnipeg.

The city eastern Canadians deride as Winterpeg does get the same knifing winds and even frostier air.

But at least the city has provided itself with a light at the end of the tunnel. In February, Winnipeg hosts western Canada’s largest winter party, the Festival du Voyageur. About 100,000 people are expected at the 10-day event celebrating the area’s historic fur trade and nasty winters. Attractions include snow sculptures, snow mazes, snow slides – you get the drift.

Emili Bellefleur, a festival spokeswoman, said the wind chills have been as low as -40, and outdoor activities aren’t canceled.

“One of the things about Winnipeg is they’re used to this weather. They’ll go out and enjoy it,” she said.

Verdict: While it’s colder in Winnipeg, they may deal better. We rally the collective troops to endure many seasonal calamities: spring floods, summer mosquitoes, the Vikings in the fall, but in winter, we hunker down alone until it breaks.

Worse-o-meter: Us – 1, Them – 0.

Round two: Snow

Asked to name an especially snowy spot, Riddle pointed to Houghton, Mich., a city in the state’s Upper Peninsula and the frequent recipient of Lake Superior-caused snowfall.

Mark Osborne, program manager at the Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, teaches at a winter driving school there. It’s a necessary service because the roads in the hilly town are fully snow-covered from November to March.

While their snow in November and December was well below average at less than 60 inches, nearly 2 feet fell in the first few days of January, he said.

“Eight, five, three, four,” Osborne said, recalling the snowfall amounts from the previous four days. “A foot isn’t even that much.”

Verdict: It’s been a snow-shellacking so far this year, but we’ll never get as much as places like Houghton that are smack dab in the path of reliably damp air.

Worse-o-meter: Us – 1, Them – 1.

Round three: Floods

One of the biggest worries about all that snow has nothing to do with driving, expect for those who haul the clay for building dikes.

The latest forecast from the weather service estimates that Fargo has a 50-50 chance of major flooding this spring.

What will happen largely depends on how fast the snow melts, but no matter what, it’s not going to be like the record flooding along the Fitzroy River in Australia last week. Piles of poisonous snakes were forced onto land, and large crocodiles were swimming in flooded streets, Australian news outlets reported.

Verdict: If the Red River starts coughing up venomous snakes and massive crocodiles, the end is near.

Worse-o-meter: Us – 1, Them – 2.

Round four: Daylight

Obviously, an Alaskan city is worse off on the short-day front. Or is it?

Parker, the English teacher in Fairbanks, said the scant sun is a source of constant conversation, and radio stations trumpet how much extra daylight has been gained each day after the winter solstice, even if it’s only matter of seconds.

There’s a big focus on group hobbies during the winter’s darkness. Parker, for example, plays hockey to fight off fake-light fever.

“You have to try to have something scheduled pretty much every night,” he said. “People help each other stay busy.”

Yet the sun rises in Fargo on Monday at 8:11 a.m. and sets at 4:59 p.m., so office-job types will get sun only if they venture out over the lunch break. And do we help each other stay busy?

Verdict: Much like the cold in Winnipeg, the lack of winter sun in Alaska is communally embraced and hence more tolerable.

Worse-o-meter: Us – 2, Them – 2.

Round five: Wind

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington is home to the highest wind speeds in the U.S., with an annual average nearly three times the 12.2 mph in Fargo – a ranking that makes us only the 19th windiest city in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Verdict: Sure, there are 18 windier locations in the U.S. than Fargo. But if you throw out five small Alaskan cities and Mount Washington, which is manned in the winter only by trained observers working one-week shifts, there’s no city with higher winds that’s as cold as Fargo. Since the concern is more feeling the fingers than flying a kite, that’s the crucial matter.

Worse-o-meter: Us – 3, Them – 2.

Final verdict: All hail the pseudo-proof! This is, in fact, as bad as it gets. So what’s the bright side? That’s kind of the point. There isn’t one. Sorry.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535