On Cold (Arctic blog)

‘How cold is cold?’ I asked. I felt a bit stupid. Simon, the Ice Base Manager was giving me a briefing in the sitting room of his house in late February. I had never been to the Arctic before and had no idea what to expect.

We went for a walk after lunch. The air was damp and heavy. It crawled in between my jacket and fleece, the heavy, clinging, damp cold of England. It must have been 5°C.

Simon was a polar veteran. I tried not to shiver in the relative mild.

The temperature at the Ice Base was likely to be between about -35°C, rising to about -20°C towards the end of April. I had no idea what these figures meant. Is -35°C twice as cold, three times as cold, ten times as cold? These numbers were abstract and extreme in equal measure. They accompanied me on shopping trips to buy thermal leggings and fleece jackets and entertained friends in pubs at weekends.

I am now in Resolute, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, waiting for a flight to the Ice Base. The cold here is a sharp and dry cold that is, at first, a comfortable contrast to the stuffy and claustrophobic warmth of the hotel.

As I stretch outside, the first sensation is a stiffening brittleness in my nose as the damp exhalation freezes. Then my beard starts to feel waxy. Nose and cheeks are pinched and sting. It is -40°C, yet I do not feel cold. Ears if uncovered give off a sharp ache. The fabric on my gloves hardens. Each layer of clothing is like a piece of armour, a defence.

It is a battle to see how far the cold can penetrate from the outside and how well my body can warm from the inside. I feel cocksure wandering around town, confident that the extra chips and chocolate cake will fuel me in this fight. To battle the cold, you need energy.

If I were in London, I would be eating 2,000 calories a day to lead a normal working life. Here, I need to eat 5,000 calories a day. 3,000 calories just to fuel my body to stay warm, like feeding an extra me. On an expedition, pulling a sled, polar explorers will be consuming three times as many calories as recommended by your doctor and losing weight.

Even with the food and thermals, I feel like an invisible sprite has a frozen set of tongs and presses them to any patch of exposed flesh.
It is not colder in the Arctic. It is a different cold. Not malicious but lethal for the unwary. Do not think in terms of degrees. Imagine that the cold here is not a temperature but an animal or ice spirit, a polar djinn if you will, trying to find a way in, trying to find a weakness, biting, clawing, burning.

The team at the Ice Base put their idea of cold into words. This is what they came up with.

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