Colder than Antarctica?

During the descent of the most recent polar vortex, you probably heard that the Midwest was colder than Antarctica. And it was!

But then, the Midwest usually is, this time of year.

The comparison “colder than Antarctica” makes sense on a visceral level. If the temperatures are below zero and the windchills are in the minus-dozens across large portions of the country, and you’re a journalist or a civic official trying to capture the extreme nature of the situation, then the question that comes to mind might well be What is the coldest place on the planet to which I can compare this historic phenomenon?

Antarctica, is the answer, on the whole. But, not to be pedantic (okay, to be pedantic, but possibly for a good reason, I promise), the comparison should come with a couple of caveats.

First, Antarctica where?

It’s a big continent—the size of the United States and Mexico combined. I
once mentioned to someone at a cocktail party that I’d just returned from the
South Pole, and he said that, hey, he’d once been to the South Pole, too, when
his cruise ship stopped and he got off and photographed some penguins. I didn’t
point out that his ship didn’t come within 1750 miles of the South Pole,
because I’m not in fact usually a pedantic sort of guy.

Second, Antarctica when?

During the austral winter (northern summer), the average high at the Pole is in the minus 50s and the average low in the minus 70s, windchills not included—insanely colder than what the Midwest was experiencing.

So, not then.

During the austral summer, Antarctica is surprisingly moderate—or surprisingly to me, anyway. The week I spent at the Pole the temperature didn’t leave the minus single digits except for New Year’s Eve, when it broke the zero barrier and reached plus 1. At McMurdo Station, a U. S. outpost on the continent’s perimeter where I stayed for several days both before and after my time at the Pole, the temperatures were in the upper 30s, and because the ground had been soaking up sunlight nonstop for two months, the sight of shirtsleeves was not uncommon.

So, not then, either: Frostbite Falls being colder than the South Pole this past January is no more newsworthy than Mexico City being warmer than McMurdo in July.

As a blunt-force metaphor, “colder than Antarctica” is effective, if you don’t give it another thought. But if you do give it another thought, and if that thought is Really?, you might start asking about where in Antarctica and when in Antarctica. The answers you get will be more prosaic than you might expect, and therefore some of the magic will seep out of the metaphor.

But every time I heard that the Midwest was colder than Antarctica, I felt a shudder, though not of a geothermal sort. The answer to the question of whether the Midwest was colder than Antarctica was Yes, No, and It depends — a set of complications that, to the pedantic part of my brain anyway, makes Antarctica even cooler.


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