Meadville Tribune

February 13, 2014

This winter’s feast of cold is equally fortunate

By Don Skinner
Meadville Tribune

— In late December, as we braced for winter’s first real blast, I reported on the benefits of a healthy snow cover. Given temperature readings since, it seems appropriate to follow up with a discussion of how it’s equally fortunate that this winter is dishing out such a feast of cold.

I know: A lot of people are suffering, and that’s sad — especially for those who can neither afford to fix their homes nor buy enough fuel to heat them more effectively.

In a real sense, responsibility for this lies not on individuals but on our whole society. Historically, we’ve done a poor job of anticipating; and even when someone did offer solid predictions, they were met with more derision than gratitude.

In designing our Meadville home in 1931, my father had heavy craft-paper bags of cellulose laid between the joists of the second floor ceilings to slow the loss of heat into the attic. It worked. (I know, because I lived up there for several years. It was a bracing environment!) More than one skeptic labeled it a total waste of money. Domestic fuel was so cheap, why would anyone possibly worry about preserving heat? But home heating prices rose — a lot — by which time it was far more difficult to refit old homes to withstand frigid weather, and far more expensive to heat them.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that most citizens, and most levels of government, made anything like a concerted effort to improve energy efficiency standards in the construction of new residential and commercial buildings.

Having said all that (and admitting that we still haven’t done anywhere near as much as needs to be done), let me nonetheless expound on the benefits of frigid winters. I haven’t space for an exhaustive list, but a few recent discoveries may be of value.

First, researchers in Finland discovered that people exposed to frigid temperatures enjoy as much as a three-fold upsurge in norepinephrine, a naturally occurring body chemical that helps to suppress pain. What a paradox: The colder the climate, the less pain we are likely to feel. (Now don’t get carried away, here. We’re talking about the aches and pains of normal living, not frost bite.)  

Second, this may have something to do with the findings of yet another study by researchers at the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan, who found that critters like mice and worms, exposed to regular periods of cold, live longer than their peers in warmer environments — in some cases, up to 20 percent.

That may help humans, too. During the 12 years that I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I learned that a majority of people who lived and worked there chose to remain there in retirement. No retreating to Florida for those hardy folks. And a disproportionate share of those I met personally were mentally alert and physically active well into their 90s or beyond.  

Third, another study found that bodies exposed to cold begin to burn a special kind of body fat called “brown fat.” Babies have a lot more of the stuff than adults, which is one reason why children often seem impervious to temperatures that send older adults running for a sweater — or the radiator. This is doubly good for all of us, because brown fat burns more calories than white fat, helping to keep weight under control.

Fourth, John Lenters, a specialist on the climates of lakes and watersheds, is delighted with the frigid conditions around his Traverse City, Mich., office this winter. Up to 60 percent of the Great Lakes water surface is expected to freeze this year, which could have measurable benefits. Great Lakes water levels have been steadily receding in recent years, causing erosion and loss of vital wetlands. A healthy ice covering could help the lakes recover.

Finally, frigid temperatures can reduce populations of agricultural pests and slow the progress of invasive species like as the Emerald Ash Borer. A native of Asia, the Ash Borer hitch-hiked into the U.S. around 2002. Lacking any natural predators here, it has run rampant through northeastern and upper midwestern hardwood forests, killing millions of ash trees. Robert Venette, research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn., says that minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (not an unusual reading in the Gopher State) could kill half of the ash borer larvae.

As I drafted this column late one February evening, the National Weather Service was predicting an overnight low of minus 7 degrees for Tool City. I suggest that all tree-loving citizens — especially my friends on the Meadville Shade Tree Commission — pray for minus 25.

Don Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at stinkweed272@gmail.com.