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.