Winter Poll: “Bitter” Cold

A seasonally appropriate poll, brought to you by this morning’s frigid dog walk (15F/ -9C), and the memory of a newscast back when I was in Maryland that referred to an overnight low temperature of 22F/-6C as “Bitter, bitter cold”:

For the purposes of this poll, assume a still day with no significant “wind chill.” All of these temperatures are too high for quantum effects to be significant, so you may only choose one answer at a time, not a superposition of multiple answers.


  1. #1 Evan Berkowitz
    January 10, 2011

    Bitter cold is how cold it needs to be before people grew up in that place become bitter about it.

    With DC’s “We’re the mid-Atlantic! We shouldn’t have to worry about cold!” attitude, 22F might qualify, whereas you would be laughed at in Schenectady if you had that threshold.

  2. #2 Cherish
    January 10, 2011

    But there’s not even any subzero (Fahrenheit) temps in the list!

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    January 10, 2011

    I gave the appropriate answer for where I live (New Hampshire), but it’s definitely location-dependent. I would prefer dealing with 0F hereabouts than 30F in Florida (where I grew up); we’re prepared for that kind of thing, they’re not. OTOH, if I’m in Fairbanks (which I have visited at this time of year), where the average daily high is below 0F, it’s not bitter cold until ice fog forms (this would be around -25F).

  4. #4 Tom
    January 10, 2011

    Evan nailed it.

    I’m still sort-of calibrated to Schenectady levels, so I laugh at the pronouncement of DC-area “bitter cold” temperatures whenever it drops below freezing. And I recall windbreaker’s-enough-for-the-dash-to-the-car temperatures (mid-upper 30’s) when I had just moved to Florida, and seeing someone in a full snowmobile suit walk into a Publix supermarket.

  5. #5 Richard
    January 10, 2011

    A friend from Mexico, after a few Wisconsin winters, admitted that Fahrenheit is better than Celsius, because “when it’s zero Fahrenheit, it’s really cold.”

  6. #6 Sue
    January 10, 2011

    I would have selected -10F but it wasn’t a choice. So I went with the closest alternative.

    C and F are the same at -40, so at that temperature you wouldn’t have to worry about which units you are using, but it still makes a big difference if you are using C or K! (-40K is meaningless, of course, but 10K is very different from either 10C or 10F…)

  7. #7 cheem
    January 10, 2011

    It depends on the humidity. 40F at 80% humidity feels a lot colder than 0F at 10% humidity.

  8. #8 Ursula
    January 10, 2011

    It’s -18 C where I am today (Windchill: -28 C), and I’d count that as decently cold if you haven’t got a hat. But then I’m a Canadian in Canada.

    Though I’ll agree with cheem that humidity makes a huge difference. Below 0 C and high humidity means ice freezing to your face, which is decidedly uncomfortable. Below 0 C and low humidity is kind of ‘meh’.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    January 10, 2011

    Humidity is a critical factor.

    I’ve gotten by with an unbuttoned sport coat and dress shirt (no T shirt) when it is a calm 20 F in New Mexico, but the same temperature with 80% humidity and a breeze requires a coat and something heavier than a pair of regular dress pants.

  10. #10 Alex Besogonov
    January 10, 2011

    Heh. In my hometown outdoor gym lessons at schools are not canceled if temperature is above -15C.

    So -30C is cold, -40C is very cold.

  11. #11 Estraven
    January 10, 2011

    It seems like many people put there live in cold climates. My usual idea is if I can see frost in the morning it’s definitely very cold. That’s below 0C in the night. Daytime temperatures below 5C are definitely bitter cold. One needs a scarf! And a hat! And gloves! The horror.
    My kids were collecting daysies today near the Mediterranean shore.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    January 10, 2011

    The first day I learned to ski we had a high temp of 10 below. The sun was shining it was one of the most beautiful and fun days of my life. Granted, it was Illinois, skiing is done on hard packed snow, not powder, the hills are just that, hills. But, 10 below is just not bitter cold. The 2-3 weeks we get every year of 10-20 below with 40 mph winds is pretty flippin’ cold.

  13. #13 Mike from Ottawa
    January 10, 2011

    Though I’ll agree with cheem that humidity makes a huge difference. Below 0 C and high humidity means ice freezing to your face, which is decidedly uncomfortable.

    At 0F maybe, if you were standing over open water. We get plenty of 0C and high humidity and I’ve never seen ice form on my face then. In actual cold temperatures, -20C, you don’t get the humidity anyway and the only way you get ice on your face is from your own breath and then only if you’re sporting facial hair.

    I went with ‘where C v F doesn’t matter’, but my normal standard is that daytime highs that don’t go about -30C is bloody cold and bitterly if there’s a good wind. A good indicator is when you step out into the cold and it feels like it is sucking the air out of your lungs. We used to get at least two week long periods of steady highs in the -30C range but we haven’t had that in quite some years now, and I can’t recally a seriously cold spell at all last winter. This winter, so far, barely deserves the name. At this point I think it is appropriate to yell ‘Hey! You kids! Got offa my lawn!’

    -20 is only cold. I’ve travelled to Geneve, Suisse, and at 0C you see all the locals out in down parkas and mukluks, while I’m going from airport to cab wearing a windbreaker over shorts and a T-shirt (airports and planes are too hot). Cabbies remark that I must be cold, but I say where I’m from it’s not cold until it’s at least -20. You can see them shiver at the mere thought.

  14. #14 Alex Besogonov
    January 10, 2011

    “At 0F maybe, if you were standing over open water. We get plenty of 0C and high humidity and I’ve never seen ice form on my face then. In actual cold temperatures, -20C, you don’t get the humidity anyway and the only way you get ice on your face is from your own breath and then only if you’re sporting facial hair.”

    Well, at -25C your own breath start to condense on your eyebrows and facial hair. You won’t get ice on your skin (unless you’re dead, of course).

  15. #15 rob
    January 10, 2011

    bitter cold is definitely subzero in F or C scales. I would say -20°F/-30°C. anybody complaining about cold at temps higher than that just hasn’t been in *real* cold before.

    this is the description form wikipedia of the city i live in:

    “Because of its northerly location in the United States and lack of large enough bodies of water in close proximity to moderate the air, Minneapolis is sometimes subjected to cold Arctic air masses, especially during the months of January and February. The average annual temperature of 45.4 °F (7.4 °C) gives the Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area the coldest annual mean temperature of any major metropolitan area in the continental United States”

    then again, Canada is right north of Minnesota. where do you think the cold air comes from? Canadians get the bragging rights!

  16. #16 ron
    January 10, 2011


    60 degrees: Californians put their sweaters on.
    50 degrees: Miami residents turn on the heat.
    45 degrees: Vermont residents go to outdoor concert.
    40 degrees: You can see your breath.
                       Californians shiver uncontrollably.
                       Minnesotans go swimming.
    35 degrees: Italian cars don’t start.
    32 degrees: Water freezes.
    30 degrees: You plan your vacation in Australia.
    25 degrees: Ohio water freezes.
                       Californians weep pitiably.
                       Minnesotans eat ice cream.
                       Canadians go swimming.
    20 degrees: Politicians begin to talk about the homeless.
                       New York City water freezes.
                       Miami residents plan vacation farther south.
    15 degrees: French cars don’t start.
                       Cat insists on sleeping in your bed with you.
    10 degrees: You need jumper cables to get the car going.
    5 degrees: American cars don’t start.
    0 degrees: Alaskans put on T-shirts.
    -10 degrees: German cars don’t start.
                       Eyes freeze shut when you step outside.
    -15 degrees: You can cut your breath and use it to build an igloo.
                       Arkansans stick tongue on metal objects.
                       Miami residents cease to exist.
    -20 degrees: Cat insists on sleeping in pajamas with you.
                       Politicians actually do something about the homeless.
                       Minnesotans shovel snow off roof.
                       Japanese cars don’t start.
    -25 degrees: Too cold to think.
                       You need jumper cables to get the driver going.
    -30 degrees: You plan a two week hot bath.
                       Swedish cars don’t start.
    -40 degrees: Californians disappear.
                       Minnesotans button top button.
                       Canadians put on sweater.
                       Your car helps you plan your trip South.
    -50 degrees: Congressional hot air freezes.
                       Alaskans close the bathroom window.
    -80 degrees: Polar bears move South.
                       Green Bay Packer fans order hot cocoa at the game.
    -90 degrees: Lawyers put their hands in their own pockets.
    -100 degrees: Hell freezes over.

  17. #17 Graydon
    January 10, 2011

    I always thought “bitterly cold” was “exposed skin freezes in 30 seconds or less”, but looking it up I see this ought to be “10 minutes or less”, which starts around -25 C which isn’t on the poll.

    Though provides the following interesting, look-it-depends-on-who-is-freezing, note:

    In Ontario/Atlantic provinces, the warning level is -35 C. In most areas of Canada, the warning level is -45 C. In northern Quebec, Manitoba, Labrador and the Arctic, the warning level is -50 C. In the high Arctic, the warning level is -55 C. This is due to human adaptability to cold over time.

  18. #18 Ian
    January 10, 2011

    I am from Interior Alaska. School was closed for cold exactly once when I was a kid. It was -68F (-55.5C). -60? “Go wait for the bus.”

  19. #19 Samantha Vimes
    January 11, 2011

    I couldn’t answer, so I went with being of pure intellect.

    See, I live in California, always have, but I don’t mind “cold”, but then cold here isn’t *cold*. So I don’t know when I would complain about the taste of it.

  20. #20 Paul
    January 12, 2011

    When hydrogen solidifies.

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