A climate scientist says ‘dry cold’ is the same as ‘wet cold.’ I set out to prove him wrong

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A climate scientist says ‘dry cold’ is the same as ‘wet cold.’ I set out to prove him wrong


I moved to Calgary just in time for one of the city’s worst winters on record.

February 2019 was Calgary’s coldest since the Great Depression, according to Environment Canada. The air was bitterly cold on my exposed face as I walked to work, and I had a permanent case of hat hair for weeks.

Despite the warnings I’d received before leaving Ottawa, my home for five and a half years, Calgary’s winter weather didn’t seem that bad.

Maybe it was the sunshine. Ottawa winters are grey and snowy. In Calgary, the sun glitters off the hard-packed snow, illuminating the clear blue sky. Sure, it’s cold, but it’s also pretty.

In Calgary, as long as I was bundled up, I was warm — it was only the exposed parts of my face that were freezing up. Here, the cold is manageable — even when it dips to -30 C. Much more manageable, anyway, than the Ottawa winter, which seemed to numb my toes the moment I stepped outside and kept me shivering no matter how thick my long johns were.

I blame it on the wet cold, on the extra humidity in Ontario. Having experienced Alberta’s dry winter, I can confidently say I prefer the latter. And I know I’m not alone.

Except “wet cold” and “dry cold” are a myth. Or so I’ve been told.

There’s one CBC story from 2013 that resurfaces every winter. In it, renowned Environment Canada climatologist Dave Phillips says that there’s no difference between the two colds.

I’m not one to deny science. But I’m a millennial — my feelings can’t be wrong, can they?

Ritchie Velthuis has been building ice castles and carving snow across Canada for two decades. He says he has to stop to warm up far more frequently in Quebec than he does in Alberta.

The castle-maker

Ritchie Velthuis has been building ice castles (with the aptly named company Ice Castles) and carving snow sculptures for more than two decades. Having grown up just outside of Edmonton, he’s no stranger to Alberta’s dry, cold winter.

And since his winter months are spent outside — across Canada, from Edmonton to Quebec to the territories up north — Velthuis has learned firsthand how to handle different types of winter.

The most “wet” winter climate Velthuis has experienced was in Quebec City. He and his team were carving snow using hand tools in the middle of a blizzard. And while the team takes regular indoor breaks when working in Alberta, Velthuis said he had to stop far more often in Quebec. He also had to change his socks multiple times to keep his toes warm and dry, and found himself piling on the layers more than usual.

“That’s the one major difference that I found: You had to really bundle or layer in Quebec,” he said. “In Alberta, you have to be dressed properly, but it’s not quite the ordeal as it was in Quebec.”

Velthuis — who oddly enough says he isn’t really a winter person — is also cheered up by the sunny calm of an Alberta winter.

“If there’s no wind chill, and you can feel the energy or the heat of the sun — and you can, even in minus 30 you can still feel it — that makes a huge difference.”

Canadian ice climber Will Gadd, seen here in 2015 climbing a frozen Niagara Falls, has climbed in pretty much every Canadian province and territory and he's adamant that there's a big difference between climbing in a wet winter climate versus a dry one.

The climber

Canadian ice climber Will Gadd called from Austria to weigh in on the differences between cold, wet climates and the drier Alberta winter. Gadd has climbed in pretty much every Canadian province and territory, he says, as well as many countries around the world.

And having done so, Gadd is adamant that there’s a big difference between climbing in a wet winter climate versus a dry one.

Gadd — who once scaled the very ice castles Velthuis builds — said he doesn’t think calling wet and dry cold “myths” tells the whole story.

“I think people who say that haven’t spent a lot of time in both types of climates,” he said with a laugh.

Gadd’s theory: “It’s not so much that the cold is wildly different in terms of the actual amount of water in the air, but what is really different, I find, is how quickly you dry out.”

He said the hardest climates to keep warm in often aren’t that cold — perhaps five or 10 degrees below zero — but have lots of moisture in the form of snow or rain in the air. These include Atlantic Canada, Scotland, Iceland and Norway, he said.

“It’s way more miserable because your clothes don’t dry out, you stay damp. And then it’s just horrendous,” he said, adding, “I could never live in England. Those people are tougher than I am.

“I don’t know what the science says. But I know from an athletic viewpoint, it’s much harder to stay warm, dry and comfortable in a humid, wet climate than it is in a dry, cold climate,” he said. “I’d take minus 25 and dry over plus five and lightly raining or drizzling or something any day of the week.”

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Well, if Gadd ever gets tired of climbing, maybe climatology could be his next career. Because he actually got the science pretty spot-on.

Environment Canada senior climatologist Dave Phillips is familiar with the age-old debate over the existence of wet and dry cold.

The scientist

Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada — yes, the same one quoted in the CBC article — is familiar with the age-old debate over the existence of wet and dry cold.

“I’ve been in the business 50 years, and I think it’s probably the question that I’m most asked,” he said.

The short answer: Wet cold and dry cold are pretty much the same thing. While hot air can carry a lot of water vapour or very little, meaning the difference between “dry heat” and “damp heat” is very real, cold air doesn’t carry water vapour the same way. The difference between the amount of water in Alberta’s -20 air versus Ontario’s -20 air is next to nothing, explains Phillips.

So, cold is cold. But, Phillips acknowledges, most people who have experienced both Western and Eastern winters refuse to accept this. They — and I include myself here — swear there’s a difference.

“I think there are good reasons for (this perception) existing,” said Phillips. They’re just not what you might think.

While cold air in Calgary and cold air in Toronto are essentially the same, the feeling that one is worse than the other isn’t all in my head.

There are several reasons. The first is that in Ontario you’re statistically more likely to be, well, wet. In other words, it’s not the cold air that’s damp. It’s you.

Phillips explained that the average amount of precipitation in Toronto (for example) during the winter months is historically much, much higher than the average in Calgary. Five times higher, according to Phillips’ calculations.

So you’re just statistically more likely to be caught in rain, sleet, hail, snow or fog when you’re in Ontario. And there’s no denying that once you’re damp, you’re going to be much colder than if you’re in dry clothing.

The second factor is wind chill. While Alberta and the rest of the Prairies are quite windy during other seasons, the Arctic wind that brings the cold to our doorsteps is actually relatively calm. Phillips said that’s because the air pressure is significantly higher, making the air much stiller most winter days. Meanwhile, in many parts of Ontario including Toronto, multiple weather systems are coming together, creating gusts of wind that really hammer home the cold.

“So the environmental conditions … between Toronto and Calgary explain why one is more comfortable in the West than you would be in the East,” said Phillips. “But it has nothing to do with the dry cold versus damp cold.”

Calgary streets are covered in snow in this undated photo. Albertans like to brag the the Western "dry cold" is easier to handle than Ontario's "wet cold." But are they backed up by science? We found out.

Finally, it turns out that my love of the Alberta winter sun isn’t just poetic. Soaking in the sun on a cold day can make a big difference, he said. And Calgary is one of the sunniest places in Canada, even during the winter.

“We measure temperature in the shade. But if we’re standing in the sun, well, we can add usually five or six degrees … to the air temperature,” said Phillips.

So when I say the Ontario cold just feels colder to me, I’m not totally wrong. And neither is Gadd, who said he also prefers sunny Alberta winters to an overcast sky.

“Wet, damp climates, you know, they’re basically a depression factory,” he said. “There’s a reason, like, the Smiths and Morrissey and all those bands came out of England.”

Meanwhile, in Alberta, “you can feel the warmth of the sun in your face telling you, ah, it’s really cold, but it’ll be OK.”

So there you have it. “Wet cold” and “dry cold” might not technically exist, but there are some significant differences between Western and Eastern climates that account for the different ways winter feels across Canada.

I don’t know about you, but I feel validated.

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