Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Planet Earth, hot mess. Image via The Guardian

Siberia is burning with unheard of temperatures over 38˚C. Baghdad is scorching, hitting 52˚C during a heatwave this year. Phoenix is steaming, at almost 46˚C. California is on fire, including a recent record 49.5˚C in Los Angeles. Toronto has had at least one heatwave but lately has had temperate weekdays pockmarked with cooling rain. I’m not here to make the case that incredibly hot summers are proof of climate change, mostly because weather isn’t climate, but you have to admit, Siberian fires are pretty weird. The climate crisis is happening but I’m not sure I’m up to convince anyone who denies it. I’m here to talk about temperature.

Once the summer arrived, I was reminded how different the reported temperature is to the experienced temperature. Environment Canada reports the temperature recorded in the shade. In the shade is so lovely. In the sun, our life giving star could scorch you. On some of our hot days, there wasn’t even a rumour of a cloud in the sky. Living in the city core, surrounded by tall buildings, the air can be still and stagnant while heat radiates off the brick, concrete and asphalt like hot embers. On those days I could barely survive the fifteen or less minutes of putting laundry on the line. I thought I would become like a vampire, waiting for the dark of night to emerge. Then we’d have an equally hot day, with clouds and a breeze, and the experience was entirely different.

I’ve known for awhile that the perfect temperature, for me, is 23.5˚C. I have no idea what your perfect temperature is. One day, I noted how comfortable it felt after several days of absolutely blistering, splintering heat. The kind of heat that gives you a headache. The kind of heat that when the sun hits wood, you can smell it. The kind of heat that makes grass crackle as it wilts. In the evenings the temperature should drop below 20 but, of course, during a heat wave that’s not so. When I stepped outside one night to see what the temperature was like, it felt like, well, room temperature. The recorded temperature then was 23.5˚C, which is my room temperature. Many smart asses will tell you that “room temperature” is whatever the temperature is in the room you happen to be in. I guess a perfectly working walk-in fridge is at room temperature as long as the room is supposed to be -15˚C. In the summer, without mechanical intervention the room temperature of my house would probably hover around 32˚C. Even my cool basement kitchen has been oddly warm. You know it’s too hot when chocolate in a drawer starts to melt (chocolate melts around 30˚C and gets soft around 24˚C). My point is, the magic of 23.5˚C is how cool it feels in the summer but how cozy and warm it feels in the winter.

My temperature sensitivity is either my greatest weakness or my super power. This remains to be determined. Now that autumn is here the temperature has cooled to a most humane level. I often play a little game with myself, trying to guess the room temperature before checking the thermostat. I’m weirdly and often correct. This probably only applies to my house but then again, it’s the place I most often experience room temperature. Last winter as I struggled with a bout of urticaria that made my skin so painfully sensitive I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what temperature was best for me. I found if I let the house cool off, I would inevitably have to wear a sweater and my skin, in a state of constant burning, would sweat and this combination of warmth and wet clamminess was a one way ticket to unbearable itchiness. However, ticking the temperature up slightly to 24˚C I could forgo any sweat-inducing layers and this warmer, drier air worked for me.

Recently, I was out for a ride on a surprisingly hot but windy, gusty day. It was glorious. Any concerns I had about over heating evaporated with the cooling wind. As a cyclist, weather can be a frustrating foe, chief among the elements, wind can be most devastating. Yet as a Newfoundlander, there’s nothing like the embrace of a gust of wind that pushes you back, reminding you who really is boss on this planet. As the Ode to Newfoundland says -

“When blinding storm gusts fret thy shore,
And wild waves lash thy strand,
Thro' spindrift swirl, and tempest roar,
We love thee windswept land.”

Growing up, we were so used to seeing wind-bent trees we probably assumed that’s how all trees grew. Windy, summer days remind me of my youth, taking in gulps of air and sun in equal amounts and not giving a tinker’s cuss about my skin or sun block or itchy, burning hives. I wonder now if those fondly remembered days were actually 23.5°C, partly cloudy with a nice 20 km/h breeze. Probably not but I can always fiddle with the thermostat in my memory until I get there.

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