The coldest night of the year

Editor's note: This editorial first appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017 edition of The Citizen but it's timely today.

The love-hate relationship we have with cold is like no other. We both despise it and desire it.

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In the heat of a summer's day, we lust for a cool breeze, a cold drink and immersion into a northern lake. The cold ecstasy brings shivers of delight.

Yet in the depths of winter, when the morning temperature reads "-30 C, feels like -39 C," we want to hide under the covers, away from the air that dries our skin and lips, that freezes our faces and fingers on contact. Once we are cold, a heavy morbidity sets in and we begin to wonder if we will ever be warm again.

Cold is dangerous, of course, and humans have far less tolerance for it than heat but that's to be expected for a species whose internal temperature runs at 37 C. With plenty of water and out of the blazing sun, people can last for hours and days in plus-40 C heat, their bodies efficiently disposing of excess heat. Unlike many other mammals, however, humans do not contend with cold well, betraying the African origins of our species.

Homo sapiens were only able to spread to colder climates by mastering fire and tools, which gave them the ability to create clothes and habitats to fend off the cold outside. Our bodies, however, remain as evolutionarily unequipped to contend with the cold as they were 100,000 years ago, which is why we have such a deep, emotional reaction to the intense cold. We know these temperatures can kill us in minutes.

The cold forever marks us, too.

While our brains and bodies are amazing in their ability to adapt to environmental pressures, can build tolerances to pain and stress and grow stronger and more resilient to adversity, cold does not have that effect. Skin that has been frostbitten does not forget the trauma and permanently loses its tolerance to exposure.

Worse, the cold turns the body against itself. The brain and the heart turn inward, protecting themselves, the lungs, the liver and the kidneys but cutting loose the extremities. Fingers, toes, arms and legs, ears, noses and lips will be left to freeze and die because the essential organs insist on monopolizing the body's dwindling heat supply.

Once the body reaches this point, it is difficult to save. Tragically, much of the modern medical knowledge about the treatment of hypothermia was obtained by the Nazis through cruel human experiments in concentration camps during the Second World War. German doctors desperately sought methods to save soldiers freezing in the Russian winters of 1942 and 1943.

Eventually, the brain short circuits, prompting either the desire to sleep or to shed clothing in the mistaken belief the body is burning up inside.

Many of Mount Everest's victims are found without gloves, hats and jackets, the lack of oxygen and the bitter cold forming a deadly intoxicant.

Even the phrase bitter cold is a cliche, two unpleasant words partnered together to intensify the chill. The word cold permeates the English language, used to convey everything from a lack of compassion and emotion to a lack of preparation or connection. Hitters go cold at the plate, MMA fighters are knocked out cold, searches and loves go cold, murderers kill in cold blood.

Even the cold hard truth hurts.

Cold is often combined with the lack of light. A walk under a bright sun and a clear blue sky at -30 C is energizing. The same walk in the moonlit darkness is torture. The cold spell currently blanketing Prince George and most of Canada comes at the time of the year when there is 16 hours or more of darkness each night.

Meanwhile, in Tuktoyaktuk, a 3,000- kilometre drive away, on the shore of the Beaufort Sea in the high Arctic, the temperature is the same as it has been in Prince George since Christmas but that hamlet last saw direct sunlight on the afternoon of Nov. 27. The sun will make its first appearance of 2018, rising above the horizon for just 20 minutes, on the afternoon of Jan. 13, two weeks from now.

One way to survive is to stay inside but the cold follows us there, too, with the sniffles of the common cold, the cold comfort of absent loved ones during the holiday season or the many good suspense and horror movies centred around the cold.

Here's a short list for those who want their blood to freeze but their heart to race while wrapped in a blanket on the couch, waiting for warmer days ahead: Let The Right One In, Black Christmas, The Thing, The Shining, Fargo, 30 Days of Night, A Simple Plan, Snowpiercer, A Midnight Clear and, of course, Dreamcatcher, largely filmed in Prince George.

Stay warm and remember these days six months from now when we're all complaining about the heat and the mosquitoes.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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