By Mitch Smith and Lolly Bowean, Tribune reporters
10:29 AM CST, February 8, 2014
Though 30 below zero could never be described as warm, Peter Doran said a few weeks in Antarctica can make even the most frigid temperatures start to feel normal.
"I think you do get used to it when it's perpetually low," said the University of Illinois at Chicago professor, who specializes in climate and environmental issues and works frequently in the Arctic and Antarctic. "You're feeling it here now. People seem better attuned" to the cold than earlier in the winter.
There's a scientific basis for that. As winter wears on, our bodies are able to offset some of the chill. That's why a 30-degree day in early November can seem downright cruel but, after the 22 days and counting of temperatures at or below zero in Chicago this season, that same reading in February might feel like a balmy reprieve.
"There are certain physiological responses to combat cold, and those responses become perfected and we call that cold weather acclimatization," said G. Edgar Folk Jr., a professor emeritus of physiology at the University of Iowa. "You train the skin. There are blood vessels there that keep the heat in."
But even for the hardiest Chicagoans, this winter has been a challenge. With nearly 60 inches of snow — the most in more than 30 years, according to WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling — and temperatures that had hovered below freezing for 182 straight hours, more than a week, as of midday Friday, many residents said they'd had enough.
"This Chicago weather can get to the bones and it hurts if you let it," said Tyrell Porter, 30, who had bundled up with two layers of clothes under his coat as he headed off from the South Loop to a job interview Friday. "I've been here all my life. But as used to it as I am, it's still hard to deal with."
Science suggests that some people have an innate advantage in keeping warm. Bill Leonard, chairman of the anthropology department at Northwestern University, is part of a team that has spent more than 20 years studying indigenous groups in rural Russia.
Native Siberians expend on average 15 to 20 percent more calories while at rest than people from warmer climes, Leonard said, which means that they produce more heat. In a region where winter temperatures can hit 50 below zero, that's a vital layer of protection.
Leonard said it appears the reason for that difference is both genetic and a result of exposure to brutal cold over a person's lifetime. Non-natives who move to Siberia see some uptick in their metabolism, Leonard said, but that rate on average remains lower than those whose ancestors inhabited the region.
That could mean there's hope for Chicagoans suffering through this extremely cold and snowy winter. It also means that longtime residents of the city might fare better than people like Courtney Hutchins, 25, who moved to Chicago four months ago from sunny Las Vegas.
"Because you were not exposed to cold, you have to start from scratch," Folk said. "If you live in a northern climate, you've been getting a little bit of cold acclimatization every year."
Hutchins said she has to coach herself so that she doesn't get angry about the brutal temperatures.
"Avoidance is how I'm coping," the South Loop resident said. "It just sucks. It definitely sucks. I can't believe people deal with this on a normal, year-to-year basis."
Dr. Lawrence Zachary leads the Cold Hand Clinic at University of Chicago Medicine and treats patients with medical conditions that make them especially susceptible to suffering in the chill. He said people tend to dress for the elements after a consistent cold spell, as opposed to how they may go about earlier in the season.
"The change in temperatures from fall to winter and winter to spring (are) a tough time for people," Zachary said. "People take better precautions when it's cold all the time than when it goes from one temperature to another."
The weather, of course, could always be worse. Doran, the UIC earth scientist, whose research frequently takes him to Antarctica, said he once camped on the continent in temperatures around 40 below zero with only a sleeping bag to shield him from the elements.
But when he was in Antarctica a few weeks ago — where it's currently summer — he said he experienced conditions that would be more than welcome in Chicago right now.
"It was in the mid- to high 30s Fahrenheit," Doran said. "I don't think it dropped below freezing the whole time I was there."
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