Making heavy weather of a cold snap

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You don't have to live in America long to realise that its citizens are even more fixated with the weather than Britain's. And it makes more sense to be interested here: the elements regularly provide real drama.

You don't have to live in America long to realise that its citizens are even more fixated with the weather than Britain's. And it makes more sense to be interested here: the elements regularly provide real drama.

But what is the point of enduring all these climatic assaults if you can't convincingly calibrate their fierceness for friends and family back home? "It's been oh-so-chilly here this winter" is never going to impress. Of course, you can always cite the temperature readings themselves, but that's kind of tedious. Plus, this country still marks its thermometers in Fahrenheit and I have never learned the formula to translate the numbers to Celsius.

It is even more important that you have the tools to exaggerate. Let's face it, no one will pay attention otherwise. Eight inches of snow in Central Park (our last big fall) instantly becomes a foot. I could boast of skating on the Hudson River, but that would be a lie. The river is frozen solid, however, from all points north of Manhattan. The ice is unbroken except for a slender ribbon of granulated slabs down the middle cut by barges.

Useful hyperbole is always on hand in the American news. It only takes a flake or two to persuade local TV stations to deploy their "storm teams" to report on the disaster of nature that is once more unfolding. My favourite item in January, when the north-eastern US became seriously frigid, was actually from a news wire. It described workers at the Laconia Ice Co in New Hampshire huddling in the factory's giant freezer to get warm. The freezer was set at 15F, which apparently made it a lot cozier than the parking lot outside, where temperatures were about 30 degrees lower.

This need that we have to hype whatever the heavens are delivering is well understood by the weather forecasting industry here. It can help in various ways. The first has to do with records. Rummage through the statistics far enough and there will always be some record to be broken. Thus, when the mercury dipped to 1Fin the city on 16 January, we learned that we had tied for the all-time coldest air on that date. Not bad.

Where the forecasters excel, however, is in their manipulation of the temperature readings themselves. No longer is it enough to say that it will be 1F in the morning. What we really need to know, apparently, is what the temperature will actually feel like. This, of course, is the purpose of the "wind-chill factor". We have now been reeducated about temperature. Whatever Fahrenheit may tell you, it will seem much colder if there is a wind. Did you know that on the same day it was one degree here, it dropped to 44 below (Fahrenheit, remember) on the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire? But wait: it was really minus 100F up there, thanks to the wind-chill factor.

How reliable is this wind-chill factor, anyway? Not at all, as it turns out. The original formula for calculating it was set back in 1945. But scientists recently realised that the numbers were often seriously exaggerated (no surprise there), and in 2001 the US and Canada adopted a revised wind-chill model after a series of experiments involving runners on treadmills in wind tunnels. Now, the wind-chill numbers are far less extreme.

But the very notion of wind chill is under threat. AccuWeather, America's biggest private forecaster, has just supplanted it with a system of its own neatly called "RealFeel". Details of how it works are still secret because patents are pending, but apparently RealFeel takes account of more than just wind. Also factored in are variables such as the density of the air on a particular day, cloudiness and whether or not is raining or snowing.

All this is beginning to sound potty to me. How can anyone tell how cold I will feel at any given point in the day? I mean, if I have just eaten or come off some hours at the computer, I always feel chillier than otherwise. Is RealFeel going to predict that for me? And what about body weight? People with more fat feel the cold more quickly, because more of their blood is in the body core away from the skin. Perhaps we should have several "RealFeel" indexes - for fat people, skinny people and for people who have just come out of the sauna.

The shocking truth about Con Edison

It is more than just ice that makes navigating the pavements hazardous in New York these days. After a grisly accident last month around the corner from my apartment when a 32-year-old woman was electrified and killed after stepping on a plate over a junction box, Consolidated Edison, the electric company, found that there were 280 service box lids, manhole covers and lampposts leaking voltage all over the city. One lamppost just off Times Square was buzzing with 110 volts. The thoroughly remorseful company, which is barely over the disaster of the summer black-out, is in the midst of checking 550,000 locations for similar problems and promise that they will be finished by the end of the month. When I say that I now restrain my dog from peeing on lampposts I am not joking.

Smoke signals

Mayor Bloomberg apparently had smoke in his eyes when about 50 guests at a fraternity reunion party he attended recently at the Regency Hotel downtown lit up cigars. Mike, who has banned all smoking in public places in the city, is claiming that he didn't notice the happy puffers. Oh, come on. Apparently, the champion of non-smokers wasn't so keen on enforcing his own law and calling the police to have his pals punished.

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