art, environment, really?, science

Cold As Hell?

On Monday, as I was about to go out to lunch, I peered through my window to see if it was raining (it has rained every day for the last two weeks, it seems). I mentioned to a colleague that it doesn’t look like it will rain. “No,” interjected someone walking by, “but it’s cold as hell.”

Cold as hell. Or is that, cold as Hell? That seems like a contradiction in terms. Hell is hot, right? So if it really is cold outside, it’s probably not as cold as Hell. Somewhere along the line, we divorced the simile “as hell” from its literal meaning (insofar as any location described by a religion is literal), and lower-cased the word in the process. Now it seems to mean “extremely.”

But what is the temperature of Hell? If you Google “temperature of hell,” you’ll get a hell of a lot of results, many having to do with the no doubt apocryphal student’s answer about whether Hell is endothermic or exothermic, and the much-cited calculation of the temperatures of Heaven and Hell based on Isaiah 30:26 and Revelations 21:8. (Apparently Heaven is hotter.) But maybe Hell really is cold. Parts, anyway. Dante, in his Inferno, describes individuals trapped underwater, cursed to wallow in mud under cold rain and hail, and frozen in a lake. Why not? Those all sound pretty miserable, too. (He also describes people gnawing on each others heads.)

I am not so familiar with the Bible, but the Christian concept of Hell seems to leave a lot of room for interpretation. Maybe our ideas of Hell are the constructs of a culture or the ideas of an individual (like the belief that souls are immortal, which, my friend Will tells me, was not always the case). It seems likely that, for example, the vision of Hieronymus Bosch—whose third panel, “Hell,” from the Haywain triptych is displayed here (see also the Garden of Earthly Delights and the Last Judgment on that page)—that Bosch’s vision is a determinative element in our modern conception of Hell. But his Hell is also populated by lots of interesting creatures, little kiwi birds and strange musical instruments.

The San Francisco Chronicle science writer Keay Davidson published a story Tuesday about this season’s Bay Area weather. He notes, for example, that as of March 1, San Francisco’s winter rainfall is 135 percent higher than average. And, “a forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., said in early February that Californians could expect a slightly drier, warmer period into April because of La Niña,” a point I repeated on this blog when we had a spell of famously Mediterranean weather. (That NOAA forecaster could not be reached for comment in time for Davidson’s story. He or she is probably just not answering the phone.)

“In recent days, average Bay Area temperatures have been about 15 degrees below normal,” according to the article. That’s why we’ve had snow at higher altitudes and icy road conditions leading to accidents all over the place, including last Saturday morning’s 28-car pileup on the 101 between the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito. The article on that accident includes a handy list of tips for driving in cold-weather conditions, which most people here never have to do. For residents of the Bay Area, true winter weather is something to which we choose to subject ourselves, not something we are forced to endure. And then, we subject ourselves mainly in the name of having fun on ski slopes—those of us who can afford it, anyway. We aren’t used to shivering through the streets; doesn’t matter that most of the nation deals with this for at least three months of the year. And I’m numbering myself among the afflicted, because although I’ve spent years in Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, and Nebraska, four years in San Francisco have spoiled me for winters.

It’s raining, it’s snowing, it’s windy, it’s hailing, it’s icy. It’s miserable. It’s just cold as hell.

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5 thoughts on “Cold As Hell?

  1. will says:

    The key scriptural texts for the eternity of Hell, Matthew 15 and Revelations 14 and 20, both emphasize fire, especially the lake of fire and brimstone in Revelations. Fire was, and remains, the dominant motif of infernal punishment. D.P. Walker, however, in his excellent “The Decline of Hell: 17th Century Discussions of Eternal Torment”, tells us that Job 24.19 “is the main text for freezing as well as burning the damned.” The King James translation of the verse is, “Drought and heat consume the snow waters: so doth the grave those which have sinned.” Walker quotes Thomas Aquinas’s use of this verse in asserting the variation of punishments in Hell, from cold to hot. You’d think there’d be a comfortable mid-point, just a split second of “Well, this is actually quite pleasant,” but apparently this is not the case. I think I recall Dante depicting sinners alternately tormented by fire and ice.

    The Bosch panel is excellent, especially the outlandish elements, like the kiwi, and the colors. The Hell in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel used to be better before they cleaned it. It was terrifying the first time I saw it, all ochres and burnt orange and black, but when I went back in 2002, after they “restored” it, all that rich character, apparently bestowed by the grime of several centuries rather than Michelangelo’s brushwork, was washed out of it. I don’t think his Hell shows a preference for cold or heat. His sinners appear to be in for plenty of flaying and cudgeling, under what ambient conditions it’s hard to say.

    “Drought and heat consume the snow waters.” California, have you ears to hear the prophet? A rhetorical question, for of course you do not.

  2. Tim Lesle says:

    Ah, Will, I was hoping you would write a response to this post.

    Interesting that you bring up California and water. Someone’s been reading Marc Reisner. In the unpublished, unexpurgated text of my interview with climatologist Stephen Schneider last year, Schneider specifically cites a diminished Sierra Nevada snowpack—and thus diminished snowmelt and reservoir reserves—as a likely result of global warming, exacerbating an already acute problem of water in California. Something to look forward to.

  3. Tim Lesle says:

    Schneider: If you’re going to heat the planet, you’re going to melt snow earlier, and we’ve already established that glaciers are shrinking rapidly. That’s been observed and that’s related to warming. And we have already established that the spring runoff peak—you know the flooding in the spring in California, for example—is two to three weeks earlier than half a century ago, that’s established due to warming. And that’s going to continue: that the snow season will shorten and that the snow storage in places like the Sierra will probably go down. Whether there’ll be more or less snow in the Sierra total—too difficult to say, that’s still in the speculative category.

  4. will says:

    On Sunday 60 Minutes, which I missed, ran a story on the government’s suppression of global warming data. Now I have to read the online transcript. They also did a piece on the NYPD’s new anti-terrorism unit. Thanks, CBS. I blame you. Why can’t you air 60 Minutes on a weeknight? Or at least re-broadcast it? If you do, I promise to watch all your “mature” demographic ads for heart medication, incontinence, and the new Buick Century. You already axed 60 Minutes II on Wednesday night to run one of your crappy police procedural shows, so maybe I just answered my own questions. My solace is that I only missed Ed Bradley and not Lara Logan.

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