Polar vortex - Canadian chill

NEWS: Arctic air brings record cold to US

Sub zero temperatures. Wind chill factor. Frost quakes. Polar vortex.

None of these words were in my vocabulary when I was happily ensconced in Bendigo. Winter was always more about how much curlier (and frizzier) the rain would make my hair. Here, it’s about layering and covering up your skin to protect it from frostbite and cracking due the frigid temperatures that have descended.

Where is here? Toronto, southern Ontario, Canada, is the answer to that question.

When I walked home from work on Monday night it was -18 C, and when you add in what they call the ‘wind chill factor’ (what the temperature actually ‘feels like’ to bare skin), it was -32 C. The walk from the subway station to my house is only seven minutes; it was the longest seven minutes of my life that night. The wind was blowing a gale and despite wearing at least four layers beneath my wind and waterproof winter jacket complete with fur hood (a necessity over here), it was so cold I felt it in my bones.  I also went to bed fully clothed that night, with a heater going and two blankets covering me.

It’s only a wee bit chilly over here and we have a “polar vortex” to thank for that.

And no, to my knowledge it’s not something from Star Trek or created from any other fantasy/sci-fi/supernatural movie or TV show.

You will most likely have heard a little bit about it by now. It’s a legitimate, life threatening, rare winter event. Essentially it’s a dense whirlpool of Arctic air which creates freezing temperatures wherever it hits.

It descended upon the US and parts of Canada on Sunday night. Temperatures plummeted to almost beyond bearable and put wind chill, blizzard and snow squall warnings in place across parts of southern Ontario.

Did you know that in temperatures like the ones I described above, skin exposed to the air for even as little as five minutes can freeze? I didn’t. How could I? I’ve lived in cold places before, hell I even worked a snow season at Mt Buller, but I don’t ever remember being this cold or needing to be so prepared to go outside in the cold.

Layer up, buy thermals and you’ll be fine, people said. But there is no holding this Arctic chill at bay, trust me. No amount of layering has helped.

Many Canadians I know are still coming to terms with this chilly winter, it’s just not what they expected given the apparent milder winters in recent years. They told me snow in December and a white Christmas (which by the way was magical) rarely happened.

As Christmas approached and snow piled up, freezing rain then wreaked havoc in Toronto. Freezing rain is rain that falls onto surfaces experiencing sub zero temperatures forming a glaze of ice. Tens of thousands of people across Ontario lost power. No power means a lot of things, but the standout struggle, given the time of year, was no heating. Toronto’s public transport system was also momentarily brought to a standstill as ice affected tram and subway lines. Every single thing that was exposed to the freezing rain became covered in icicles. Despite the chaos it caused, it really was a rather beautiful transformation, not like anything I’d seen before.

After that came frost quakes and the polar vortex. A frost quake is when moisture in the ground freezes, expands and then releases the pressure build-up, normally with a loud bang that can sound and feel like an earthquake. Occurrences of frost quakes have been reported since Christmas Day in the Greater Toronto area. One work colleague described a frost quake he heard Monday night as “like someone taking a sledge hammer to my front door.”

I swear you can’t make this stuff up.

By the time you all read this, the polar vortex will have eased its grip on southern Ontario. Meteorologists said it should pass by Wednesday night (Toronto time, Thursday afternoon Bendigo time). Temperatures are expected to slowly rise for the rest of the week from -20s to -10s and finally, once the weekend hits, to 3 and 5 C. Heatwave! (My oh my! How my definition of a heatwave has changed!)

‘This is the coldest winter we’ve had in years,’ is a common utterance from any Canadian I’ve held a conversation with lately. That’s often closely followed by, ‘Isn’t it summer in Australia? What the hell are you doing here?’ And while I miss a good old-fashioned hot Aussie summer, there are so many winter things on my ‘to do’ list helping me through this numbing time. That and a positive attitude because honestly when am I going to experience a polar vortex again if it’s as rare as the reports say it is?

I want to do things I would never have thought of or had the opportunity to do back home. I want to go ice skating outdoors, I want to go snow shoeing and I want to go dog sledding over snow-covered trails. And, you know what? Once these temps hit single digits again, I will be back out there making plans to do one or all three of those things. But for now, I’m going to enjoy my silver lining thoughts and plans while snuggled under a blanket with a hot cup of tea.

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