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A Frosty Take On All Things 'Cold'

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A Frosty Take On All Things 'Cold'

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A Frosty Take On All Things 'Cold'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In these dog days of summer, let's get cold, really cold.

Mr. BILL STREEVER (Author, "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places"): It's July 1st and 51 degrees above zero. That chill gust runs through me as I stand shirtless on the water's edge, wearing nothing but swimming shorts in the wind and rain.

BLOCK: That's Bill Streever, a biologist who works on Alaska's North Slope, and a writer. Here Streever is bracing to dive into the arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea.

Mr. STREEVER: The only way to do this, I tell my companion, is with a single plunge. No hesitation.

BLOCK: Bill Streever's new book is titled "Cold," naturally. It's filled with vignettes about frozen arctic explorers, killer blizzards, icicle frogs and it starts with that arctic plunge.

Mr. STREEVER: I go in head first. The water temperature is 35 degrees. I come up gasping. I stand on a sandy bottom immersed to my neck. The water stings, as if I'm rolling naked through a field of nettles. I wait for the gasp reflex to subside. My skin tightens around my body. My brain, part of it that I cannot control, has sent word to the capillaries in my extremities - clamp down, my brain has commanded, and conserve heat. I feel as if I am being shrink-wrapped like a slab of salmon just before it was tossed into the deep freeze.

BLOCK: Well, Bill Streever, what was it that prompted you to jump into 35 degree water in nothing but your swimming trunks?

Mr. STREEVER: Well, you got to do it, right? It's the Beaufort Sea, you're there, you have to jump in. I think the real question is what prompted me to stay in for five minutes.

BLOCK: Well, yeah, there is that question to, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STREEVER: So, the real question, why would I stay in for five minutes? Well, when I did that little episode in my life, I was thinking about writing this book. And I was still playing around with some different ideas and learning about aspects of cold and just wanted to experience for myself what it would be like to be in the water and face, you know, at least the beginnings of severe hypothermia.

BLOCK: How did you know when you should come out?

Mr. STREEVER: Oh, I put a preset goal at five minutes. I thought that would make me miserable enough. I suppose I could have stayed until I lost consciousness or something and had somebody pull me out. That didn't seem too wise. So I thought five minutes was a nice number. And it turned out to be the case, you know, after five minutes it was probably time for me to get out.

You know, I would say that there's lots of people that run around saying things like, you'll only survive two minutes in the water on the Beaufort Sea, and this sort of thing. And I think where people are mistaken about that is when you hit the water, you start to gasp, and you have this gasp reflex. And if you get a lung full of water while you're gasping then you sort of done, you're drowning. You actually have quite a long time before the next problems start to arise. And the very next problem is that your muscles start to seize up. So, if you're actually swimming, you lose the ability to swim. And that takes, under most circumstances, much longer than five minutes.

BLOCK: You made me think about something that I don't think I'd ever really considered before, which is why we shiver. And I would've thought that this was purely a reaction to cold. But, it actually - it's serving a purpose, when we shiver.

Mr. STREEVER: Well, it's serving a purpose. Sure, it's trying to warm you up. The hypothalamus in your brain is saying, your temperature is starting to drop, we need to do something about that. So, we're going to shiver for a little while and see if that warms us up.

BLOCK: And the shivering would help how?

Mr. STREEVER: Just like doing jumping jacks or running in place or walking towards, you know, just setting a goal to walk quickly will warm you up. So will shivering, it's muscle activity, so it generates heat.

BLOCK: And that is also, as you write, how ground squirrels hibernate? They are shivering throughout the winter to warm themselves.

Mr. STREEVER: Yeah, that's right. I love ground squirrels. They're very common in Alaska up in the mountains around Anchorage and further north in the lowlands. They're very common. And they look like little prairie dogs. They stand on their hind legs and they look around. So, people are used to tree squirrels or grey squirrels - they're a bit different than our arctic ground squirrel. But in the winter, he crawls into a burrow and hibernates. And as he hibernates, he begins to cool off. And in fact, cools off to a temperature that's just below the freezing point of water. And when he hits that temperature, when one would think that this animal is, for all practical purposes dead, that its neurons aren't firing and nothing's going on in this animal, he spontaneously starts to shiver.

And I don't think it's very well known. In fact I don't think it's known at all what triggers him to shiver when everything's sort of shut down. But if he didn't shiver his temperature would continue to drop and eventually he would in fact freeze. So, he starts to shiver and as he shivers his brain goes into a standard sleeping pattern. And he starts to dream and he has squirrel dreams, so maybe dreaming about summer is what many people suggest. So, he shivers for a while and dreams for a while - maybe a day - and then he starts to cool off again. And he goes through the cycle of cooling off down to a freezing point and then shivering and et cetera, all through the winter until summer arrives. And he crawls out of his burrow and starts eating nuts.

BLOCK: Hmm. And who knows what he has been dreaming about?

Mr. STREEVER: Who knows, that's right.

BLOCK: Bill Streever, what do you think it is about cold that has intrigued you so much to really, well, literally and figuratively dive in like this? I mean, what is your relationship with cold?

Mr. STREEVER: Well, I guess it's two things. And the first thing is that, especially living in Alaska, cold is sort of all around you all the time. And it seems like a subject that's been forgotten. You don't see a lot of writing about cold as a particular topic. And I thought that was something that was missing out there, something that's so ubiquitous and yet not really considered in and of itself. So, I thought it was an important topic to have a look at and an exciting topic and full of drama, with people dying and being hurt and explorers surviving or not surviving, and this sort of thing.

The other thing that attracted me to it is that I always felt like cold has gotten sort of a bad rap, you know. I actually grew up in the Eastern and Southeastern United States, and there cold is just something that people dread. And they turn the thermostat up way too high and wear sweaters when it's actually pretty warm, and are constantly worried about getting cold. And in fact, in my experience, cold helps you feel alive. You know, you walk outside on a brisk day and it's - nothing like getting a good breath of cold air and suddenly you're awake. It's better than coffee, it's just great.

BLOCK: You embrace the cold.

Mr. STREEVER: I embrace the cold and I think others should embrace the cold, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STREEVER: In fact, I think a lot of people do embrace the cold.

BLOCK: You're clearly living in the right place in Alaska.

Mr. STREEVER: That's right. That's right.

BLOCK: What is the coldest place you've ever been? What was the temperature?

Mr. STREEVER: Somewhere below minus 40, plus wind. So when I say plus wind, the feeling of cold was probably closer to minus 90 or so.

BLOCK: And where was that?

Mr. STREEVER: In the Alaskan Arctic. And that's not uncommon for people who work in the Arctic on the North Slope or up near Barrow. Wintertime and even springtime temperatures are often hovering down around minus 40 and then a wind comes up and it can be - it can be what most people would call pretty cold, let's say.

BLOCK: You know, I was up in Barrow in the summer and I had every possible layer on and I was still cold and that was in July.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STREEVER: That's right.

BLOCK: So, I don't think I'm coming back in January.

Mr. STREEVER: That's right. Yeah, well, if you're dressed right, it's not as miserable as it might seem, although you do start to feel like, you know, Charlie Brown on a winter day when he's all bundled up and he can hardly move. If you dress warmly enough for minus 40 with wind, you'll feel like Charlie Brown on a winter day.

BLOCK: Immobile.

Mr. STREEVER: Somewhat immobile...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STREEVER: ...yeah, that's right.

BLOCK: Bill Streever, thanks very much.

Mr. STREEVER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Bill Streever's book is titled "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places." You can read an excerpt from this book and many others at the new npr.org.

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