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Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School
Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

How To Enjoy The Cold: Advice From An Arctic SCUBA Diver

Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School
Courtesy Kongsfjord International Scuba School

For much of North America, this winter has felt never-ending and particularly cruel. The Paper Of Record has compared it to "hell," and while their frustration is understandable, a river of fire seems like it'd be pretty nice right about now. Even though it's late February, much of the Midwest and East Coast will have to endure a few more weeks of this frigid reality. So, rather than booking the next flight to Cancun (fares aren't great, I checked), I sought the advice of someone who is professionally good at handling the cold. I called Christoph Hupe, an arctic SCUBA diver at the world's northernmost dive center.

Norway's Kongsfjord International SCUBA School is located at N 70° 43' 13.908". For the coordinately unengaged, here is a map for reference:

See that tropical-looking green area far to the south? That's northern Sweden and Finland.

When I spoke with Christoph, Kongsfjord was having a "mild" day. (Online weather services for the town reported a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit). Christoph tells me the coast is kept warmer by the Gulf Stream, although the price you pay for these milder temperatures is the routine presence of winds that can reach "up to 200 miles per hour." He was upbeat but anxious—he had been stuck inside doing paperwork all day and wanted to go enjoy the weather.

Christoph works year-round taking divers into the Arctic Ocean for both commercial and research purposes and for recreational tours. The underwater environment is full of the biodiversity and brilliant color you'd expect to see in the Caribbean, not in water between Alta and the North Pole. Of course, you can't exactly enjoy a Mai Tai on the beach after touring Kongsfjord's depths.

According to Christoph, "The water can chill down here to about -1.8 degrees Celsius." As I checked Google to find that this converts to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, he chimes in, "I know, that doesn't sound so bad." (I assure him that yes, it does indeed sound very bad.) "Water transports heat 25 times faster than air," he says, "when you multiply [that water temperature] by 25, then you get to somewhere between -40 and -50 degrees in equivalent air temperature."

Christoph wears a neoprene drysuit while diving in the winter. "The neoprene always holds a little bit of water," he tells me, "so I have found that when it's really cold and I come out of the sea, I stand a minute or two in the air and the entire suit starts crackling. That's always a bit of fun!"

The equipment is key, and being unprepared can be deadly. "Something can happen quick—you can have free flows in your regulator. If you have plastic fins, they can turn brittle." He knows divers who filmed in Antarctica for the BBC's Blue Planet specials, and they told him about their mistake of bringing plastic fins. He laughs, recalling that, when he watched the program, he saw their fins "brittling away...Soon they'd have just the boot on, no fin!" (Christoph uses rubber fins that "really do the trick...they have never let me down, even in the coldest conditions and when it's getting rough and tough.")

While diving in the Arctic is cold, your body ignores that fact pretty soon. "My experience is that it's not so bad. You go into the water and you get really cold and you get all these needles and pins, and it hurts for a couple seconds, but then it's numb and then it's fine!" For commercial dives, Christoph can be in the water for up to three hours at a time. "If you were just sport diving, bobbing in the water and sightseeing, you would last 20 minutes, half an hour, and then you would start getting cold and thinking of coming up and getting back out of the water. Whereas when you are working under the water, it is very different. You are active. You are moving, lifting heavy things—this keeps the blood circulating and makes you last much longer underwater."

I ask if he enjoys the cold. Christoph, who has been chipper and laughing throughout the call, pauses to think, and his tone approaches something akin to somberness for the first time. "Well," he sighs, "sometimes I wonder why I do this. Because of course I'm getting cold, and you know what it's like when you get cold: you get all the needles and pins and blah blah blah blah blah, and you wonder why on earth you are doing this." After cycling through that process mentally, he turns upbeat again, almost becoming spiritually numb to the pain. "On the other side," he says, "I keep telling myself this is a marvelous environment. It's not many people who have the chance to experience what I am allowed to experience. On the principle, I enjoy every second of it."

I soon find myself complaining about this particularly brutal winter to Christoph, and then add that everyone in America is also complaining, lest I come off as a wimp. I also mention that I am from Chicago, hoping to score some points from my cold weather brother. Still, I ask him for advice. The key, he says, is in his mindset—and it's not a case of mind over matter. "It's not important that you don't concentrate on the fact that you are cold," he says. "Don't try to ignore the thought, I am cold or Jaaaa, this is really cold. Take it as, OK, it's cold outside, I've dressed myself, now I go for a walk, or go to work, or whatever it is."

Embracing the cold is quite different from enjoying it, but, as humans with nervous systems that like to keep us informed about whether or not we're in the midst of freezing to death, sometimes there's only one thing you can do.

"When you're coming out of the living room, and you have been sitting there, watching TV, and you go out and you have to walk your dog, and it's really really cold outside, you usually say, 'Argh, that's miserable. That's grim,'" he says. "OK. Fine. On the other side, what I do is say, 'OK! It's cold outside. That's natural out here. I should dress warmly, and I take my dog, and I enjoy myself!' Me and my dog, we have a snowball chase, we roll around in the snow, we'll jump head-first in some snow drifts or whatever. It's the mindset!"

Christoph's dog, showing the proper mindset. Via Kongsfjord International Scuba School's Facebook

When people he takes on dives express worry about the freezing temperatures, Christoph asks them if they go skiing or ice skating, or have any other winter hobbies. He then tells them, "OK, what do you do when you go skiing? You're not skiing dressed in your swimsuit. You are dressed accordingly and have the according mindset. And then it becomes enjoyable! You just need to look at your own personal approach and your dress code to overcome the cold. And once it's overcome, you can start to see the beauty."

Even though Midtown Manhattan may lack Kamchatka Crabs or wolffish or the beautiful aquatic biodiversity of Kongsfjord, Christoph's enthusiasm and appreciation for the freezing world around him are contagious. By the time we are finishing our call, I yearn to take a walk outside, cold be damned. Christoph, on the other hand, is frustrated. "I can't stand this paperwork, I want to get out!" he cries. The cold and his dog will have to wait.

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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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Health
Watch a Tree Release a Massive "Pollen Bomb" Into the Air
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iStock

In case your itchy, watery eyes hadn't already tipped you off, spring is in the air. Some trees release up to a billion pollen grains apiece each year, and instead of turning into baby trees, many of those spores end up in the noses of allergy sufferers. For a visual of just how much pollen is being released into our backyards, check out the video below spotted by Gothamist.

This footage was captured by Millville, New Jersey resident Jennifer Henderson while her husband was clearing away brush with a backhoe. He noticed one tree was blanketed in pollen, and decided to bump into it to see what would happen. The result was an explosion of plant matter dramatic enough to make you sniffle just by looking at it.

"Pollen bombs" occur when the weather starts to warm up after a prolonged winter, prompting trees and grasses to suddenly release a high concentration of pollen in a short time span. Wind, temperature, and humidity levels all determine the air's pollen count for any given day, but allergy season settles down around May.

After determining that your congestion is the result of allergies and not a head cold, there are a few steps you can take to stave off symptoms before they appear. Keep track of your area's pollen report throughout the week, and treat yourself with antihistamines or nasal spray on days when you know it will be particularly bad outside. You can also keep your home a pollen-free zone by closing all the windows and investing in an air purifier. Check out our full list of seasonal allergy-fighting tips here.

[h/t Gothamist]

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