Deep, Dark and Weird

As we find ourselves once again in the shortest and darkest days of the year, we turn inward to reflect on the cold and weird that resides within us all. We consider the ramifications of blue-ice impacts, anaerobic digesters and plunging into icy surf, and wait for longer, brighter days, which, sometimes, it seems, can’t come soon enough for some of us.

1) $31 million or so

Most mountain dwellers have had the experience of sitting on a parked plane (well, those who survive the TSA groping process) while it gets showered with deicing chemicals. I don’t know about you, but my first thought, after pondering a TSA legal smackdown, is about the plane staying in the air. Thought No. 3 is about salmon slugging down the glycol that was used to melt the ice. A few years back, the Portland International Airport installed a $31 million system to collect the runoff from its deicing program, only to learn that the stuff was still getting into the Columbia River and messing with the fish. The system is in its final phases of getting fixed, and experts predict those costs — a few million more dollars — may be absorbed, oddly enough, in airline fees.

2) Blue-ice impact

While we’re on the topic of airplanes, you probably need to know that there were 27 documented incidents of blue-ice impacts in the United States between 1979 and 2003. For those not in the know, a BII is a big ball of frozen crap and “disinfectant” that dislodges from airline toilets and plunges to the earth, sometimes at terminal velocity. It happens when planes have been in very cold places (like 36,000 feet), and then travel into a space that is warm enough to accidentally shake loose the ball of crap that has accumulated from tank leaks. A homeowner in Chino, CA, learned this the hard way when a BII messed up his house.

3) Cold house? Seek methane

Another thing you probably need to know is that the oft-maligned methane gas could change your world in a good and big way. Problem is, you will need the manure from 4-6 cows and your own anaerobic digester in order to heat your home and produce enough electricity for a year. If this won’t work, consider moving to Idaho, where methane-capturing plants are sprouting up at a rapid pace, and where crap, ostensibly, is king. As the nation’s third-leading milk producer and home to 550,000 cows, Idaho has several dairies already converting manure to energy. FYI, 6,000 cows can churn out enough waste to create about 1 million kilowatt hours a month. And if you don’t have cow manure, rotten garbage works nicely too. In Burley, ID, for example, there’s sufficient landfill gas to build a 400-acre methane production plant.

4) SAD in the winter?

If you’re prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, a malady that links a dearth of sun exposure to

depression (and also sells a lot of expensive lights), you’re best to stay out of Oregon, where Astoria ranks as the place in the western U.S. (aside from Alaska with the fewest sunny days per year (a paltry 50). That’s followed by Olympia, Washington, at 52, and Seattle at 58. If you really want to get down and out in the wintertime, head up to Cold Bay, Alaska, which boasts a whopping 10 days of sunshine annually — in addition to the typical Alaskan shortage of daylight in the winter. On the upside, you won’t have to worry so much about wrinkles. (And there are only 76 people living in Cold Bay to see them anyway.)

5) Vostok on the Platte

Compared to Vostok, a place on the East Antarctic Polar Plateau that has a mean (very mean) annual temperature of minus-67 degrees Fahrenheit, and which has earned bragging rights as the coldest damned place on earth, Denver is a damned sauna. But according to the Current Results website, Denver ranks as the coldest large American city, right above Chicago. Never mind that there are lots of winter days that exceed 50 degrees in Denver; there are also roughly 156 days a year when the mercury plunges below 32. And because it has a recorded low of minus-30 degrees, that makes it the coldest American City. Chicago’s low is -27. FYI: We checked out Minneapolis, which has a recorded low of minus-34 degrees, but apparently it does not fit the category of a “large” American city.

6) Out in the cold

While it’s nearly impossible to get an accurate count on the numbers of people who lack a regular and adequate nighttime residence (one of a zillion definitions of homelessness), the American West has the highest number of people without homes. Nevada leads the pack at 49 homeless people per 10,000, followed by Oregon, 47; California, 44; Washington, 36; and Colorado, 29. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness, while a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 671,888 on a given night. Los Angeles leads the nation at 68,608 counted individuals, while Las Vegas comes in fourth at 11,417, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Denver, Phoenix and Seattle also made the top-ten list.

7) Plungers, all

The Plungapalooza is the largest polar bear plunge in the U.S., attracting more than 12,000 idiots into the Chesapeake Bay surf in late January. If you don’t want to make the trip but just have to rip off most of your clothes and drop into water the consistency of a frozen daiquiri, you’ll probably want to join the Libby, Montana, Polar Bear Club, which doesn’t just plunge once a year, but meets Sunday afternoons from October into April. Water temperatures drop into the mid to upper 30s, and about a half dozen folks are regulars. They claim that (aptly named) plunging assists blood circulation, the immune system and that all-important and sought-after vigor.

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