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Editorial: Cold Snap

We’ll Take Our Winter Straight Up

Americans have become a nation of weather wimps, The Associated Press charged in an article published in Friday’s Valley News. This is an indictment to which we are more than ready to plead guilty if it will lead to the remainder of our winter sentence being suspended.

The proximate cause of the AP’s harsh assessment of the national character was the reaction produced by the recent spate of bone-chilling cold weather, brought on by the invasion into the lower 48 states of a mysterious force called the polar vortex. This frigid high-altitude air mass normally is content to stay put in the Arctic but occasionally wanders south due to instability likened to that of a human suffering the ill effects of inebriation. Or something like that, only more scientific.

Anyway, the AP’s mission was to play the role normally assigned to grandparents when they assure their grandchildren that back in the day, they trudged 5 miles to school each morning through thigh-deep snow without even the benefit of high-tech fabrics to keep them warm and dry. To this end, the AP analyzed weather data going back to January 1900 and concluded that last week’s punishing temperatures were really nothing to stay home about.

What the data showed, the AP said, is that cold snaps, defined as when average daily temperatures in the contiguous United States drop below 1 8 degrees, have occurred about once every four years since 1900, at least until recently. But — and this is a crucial but — until last week, there hadn’t been such a cold spell in 17 years.

“This is why there was such a big buzz, because people have such short memories,” Greg Carbin, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the AP. Talk about blaming the victim. Mr. Carbin, we have known short memories, and, trust us, 17 years does not constitute a short memory. There are high school seniors who weren’t alive the last time it was as cold as last week in the U.S.

The undercurrent of the AP dispatch was teasing out to what extent the milder winters experienced in recent years are attributable to a climate becoming warmer because of human agency. We will leave that fossil-fuel-burning question to another day, and make the case that what is making the current winter so tough to take is not the unusual cold, but the whipsaw between colder and warmer weather, and the resulting slippery slope of ice-slickened roads, driveways, dooryards, sidewalks and parking lots.

Most New Englanders worthy of the name can take extreme cold weather in stride, even if they have to quicken their pace a little to stay warm. To our mind, there is little to equal a frigid January day accompanied by bright sunshine, a brilliant blue sky, pristine deep snow and a dog to revel in it. And, indeed, there have been a couple of such days this winter. But the norm has been dreary, too often accompanied by pelting rain and footing treacherous enough to slow grown men and women to a cautious crawl.

So, bring on the cold, but hold the ice, and we’ll do our level best to stop whining. In these wintry matters, we hold with Robert Frost in Good-by and Keep Cold : “Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”