Published on The Doomstead Diner April 2, 2017
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
Climate Report from the Last Great Frontier
There have been reports coming in from many neighborhoods in Canada and elsewhere that the Winter Weather for their neighborhood has been anomalous, mainly reporting warmer than usual winters. This has NOT been the case in my local neighborhood of the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley of Alaska, which these days functions more or less as a bedroom community for the one somewhat "Big Shity" in Alaska of Anchorage. I put the BIG in quotations because Anchorage has maybe 400K people in it. Compare that to a Big Shity like Lagos, Nigeria or Mexico City which are around 20M these days, it's Chump Change. The only other Shity of decent size in Alaska is Fairbanks, which serves as the main conduit hub for Oil still flowing from the North Slope. Fairbanks has like 60,000 people, which is probably less than the number of people who lived in my old neighborhood of Flushing, Queens in NY Shity. These two shities are dropped into a neighborhood more than twice the size of Texas! Although certainly more than in the past before the Industrial Revolution, Alaska remains one of the lowest population density locations on the planet.
Why such low population in this place? The first obvious reason is that generally speaking in the winter over the last few Millenia, the place is fucking inhospitably COLD! Not everywhere is equally cold though, coastal areas have their climate somewhat balanced out by the Ocean, preventing seriously outrageous cold like you can get in interior places like Fairbanks in the winter. Or even in places like Standing Rock in North Dakota, smack dab in the middle of the North American continent and decently far north too. I remember getting off a plane in Minot, ND on one job seeking trip in mid-February when the temps without the wind chill were 30 Below Farenheit. With the wind, it felt like 50 Below. That is fucking COLD weather! Despite that, and despite the fact that prior to around 1750 or so there was no central heating or even Franklin Stoves, hardy people did manage to live in these locations
Here in the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley, even in the past it rarely would get THAT cold. You might get a stretch of a few days in Minus Double digits over the winter, but mainly the typical average was Positive Teens Farenheit across the whole winter, which for me generally is not too bad. You just Suit Up for this type of weather in general. When it gets sub-zero though, you run into problems of all kinds. I will detail a few of them further down in the article here.
Not that it is impossible to survive sub-zero weather if you have the right kind of clothing and good shelter insulation (snow works good, see igloos), but it can get rather uncomfortable. You want a small shelter not much bigger than a doghouse, not a real big place to keep warm. If the shelter is small enough, your body heat and that of your friends and dogs will keep the space pretty warm. But if you are alone even in a small apartment, your body heat is not enough to do jack shit to warm up an apartment. Thus in the modern era for people living in these types of dwellings in cold climates with the availability of fossil fuels to warm them up during the winter, we developed Heating Systems. Actually the first real decent ones came from Founding Father Ben Franklin, with the Franklin Stove. They have seen much improvement since that time though, from the Techno POV anyhow.
The modern heating system usually consists of a Boiler and then piping that moves the heated water through the digs in some manner to radiate through the place. When I was a kid in New York Shity, the apartments all had metal "Radiators", where the hot water/steam circulated through and radiated heat into the apartment. Associated with this were all sorts of CLANKING noises as some steam moved through the system and condensed, but overall they worked OK. It was a big improvement over the "Cold Water Flats" at the turn of the 20th Century that many immigrants had, with no heat and no hot water at all. My grandparents lived in such flats on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in those years.
As time passed and the McMansions started going up, other heating systems were devised, such as forced hot air quite popular in many large buildings with an HVAC system. The same ducting used to move the Cold Air in the summer from the HVAC compressor could also be used in winter to move the Hot Air from the heater through the ducting.
Another method devised was to run the piping for the hot water under the floor instead of into unsightly radiators sprinkled in each room. The McMansion I lived in after returning from Brazil had one of the earliest of these systems, and it was quite interesting because some areas of the floor you walked on were really HOT! lol. The house was built in the 1950s I believe.
My current digs also have the heat coming up from pipes under the floor, but they have improved on such systems now and I no longer detect any real hotspots. However, they do have their downsides, particularly when something goes WRONG. Because these pipes are under the floor or inside the ceiling if it is the heating system of the floor above, they are pretty hard for a maintenance man to get to. Over this week when I had my own problems with my heating system, in another unit the residents moved out without notice to management, turned off the heater and left some windows open too! With temps outside dropping into the negative digits farenheit, as you might expect the pipes froze up in under a day. Then when the MM went in to restart the boiler, the pipes EXPLODED, and water rained down from the ceiling to the apartment below. He spent most of the day on that one tearing out the ceiling to get to the leaking pipes.
My problems were not near so drastic as this, thank God. After a fairly major snowstorm on Monday, on Tuesday the temps started rapidly sinking. Normally with snow temps are not that low because the air will not hold much moisture, but in this case we got one wet weather system followed immediately by another super cold snap. My first techno problem of the week was not my heating system though, it was my carz.
The first result for me was BOTH my (old) cars ended up with DEAD BATTERIES! One night of -15F or so and below, and batteries are just not real happy puppies. I put off going on a Beer Run on Monday and Tuesday to wait for the Plowboys to clear the parking lot and roads of snow, but by the time I tried to start my carz on Wednesday, both were dead as doornails. This was a real problem, because by Wednesday I was running low on beer and cancerettes! lol. So I had to do some rationing until hopefully I could get one of the cars started by Thursday.
My Carport has an electric outlet as most carports in Alaska do for people to plug in Block Heaters to keep the engine block warm in really cold temperatures. I don't have a block heater installed on either car, I haven't found them necessary. Rather what I do in real cold temps is to keep a Trickle Charger plugged in through the 12V DC Cigarette Lighter outlet, and if you do this no matter how cold it gets the Batt has enough JUICE to crank over the engine. Unfortunately, I have been lazy about doing this, because it just hasn't got that cold here over the last two winters. Both were "unseasonably" warm with little snow. So complacency set in. The major cold snap took me by surprise and by the time I realized it was that cold outside, the carz were already dead.
So I get out the trickle charger and plug in, but even by Thursday it still did not have enough juice, so I went a full day until Friday lasting on 3 full cancerettes and old unfully smoked butts, 2 beers and a pint of vodka from my Barter Preps. lol. On Friday, I finally did get the engine to turn over and restocked.
The car problem was relatively minor though compared to the HEAT problem which turned up on Thursday. Actually, I think the heat in the digs died on Wednesday, but I just didn't notice it until Thursday. It takes a while for everything to cool down through the whole system, and at first I thought it was just that since it was so cold out, more cold air was leaking in and reducing the overall temp in the digs. I compensated by throwing on another sweatshirt. By around 8PM Thursday though, another sweatshirt is not enough and at this point I throw on an outdoor winter coat. I now finally go to check my Thermostat, and it is DEAD! Blank. It has an electronic readout, and said nothing. Now I finally grasp my heating system has gone in the crapper.
So now, the Prepper in me kicks in, and I pull out an electric space heater and drop it under my desk where the heat stays contained somewhat and get out a kid size sleeping bag to pull over my legs. Then I get on the phone to call the Emergency Number of the management of this complex to get a Maintenance Man in to fix my heating system. Miraculously, said Boiler Pro showed up inside the 30 minutes they said he would, at around the 25 minute mark. It took him about an hour to diagnose and preliminarily "fix" the problem, I heard the boiler go back on and he told me the internal temps would pick up quickly. At the time, it was around 45F in the digs.
So, I am confident the problem is resolved and go to sleep. BUT, I wake up around 3AM and the place is STILL COLD! Now up to 53F but this still is not terrifically comfortable unless you have layered up. So I call Emergency number again, and he comes over somewhat exhausted and sleepy to scope out the problem again. The SAME guy does all the plowing of snow around here, so he has been on the go for a week straight, practically 24/7. He EARNS his money for sure! This time he adjust the pump speed and the boiler temperature so it maintains a hotter base temp. He also brings over another electric space heater which I plug in to have two of these things running. If I am sitting at my desk as I mostly do, it's fine. Anywhere ELSE in the digs, it's an ICE CUBE! He tells me he will come back in the morning for another checkup on the system.
Morning arrives, no calls or knocks on the door from the MM. Finally around 10 AM I call the Emergency number again for an update as to when he might arrive, at which time I am informed of all the more pressing disasters he is facing, like the aforementioned frozen and exploded pipes in another unit. Besides that, there are another 4 residents with problems similar to my own, and some of them have no heat or hot water at all, whereas I have some now. So I tell them to push me to the back of the queue, and when he gets done with them he can come back to me. At this point I am in no danger of freezing to death, plus I wanted to make my Beer Run. lol.
He did return later in the day, around 4PM, and this time we added water to the system and upped the total pressure. This seems to have finally done the trick, and the digs are now at a very pleasant 65F. 🙂
Now, why do all these heating systems go out at the SAME time, even leaving out the stupid problem of the people who turned off their system and left open windows while exiting without notice? The reason is because in real cold weather these systems don't just work intermittenly for short periods, they have to work and pump heat and water CONSTANTLY. There are old components in there, old pumps, old solenoids, old thermostats, old switches and valves. Under a lot of strain, something gives out and the system quits. Similar to car batts and starter motors, this type of techno gimmickry doesn't work very well in really cold weather without CONSTANT maintenance and input of energy.
Anyone who thinks EVs can work in an environment of extreme cold is simply out to lunch. If a batt won't hold juice to even START an ICE motor, how is it going to hold enough juice to drive you around all day for Happy Motoring when it is -15F BELOW ZERO? It's not, and besides that the batts themselves get damaged when they get to cold for long period of time, so if you are not operating the car every single day, your battset is going to take some damage through the winter. Well, if you keep it on a trickle charger it won't, but you do generally need grid power available for this. You don't get enough sunlight above 60 Latitude to make Soalr PV very effective, and windy days for your Wind Turbines are very intermittent.
One of my fellow Diners Palloy who lives in the compelte OPPOSITE type of environment I do, a Tropical Rainforest made the sarcastic remark about how stupid it was to live in an environment where you depend on these techno gadgets for your daily living, and he is right about that to an extent, but of course in the environment he lives in you have a ton of insects, malaria, snakes and just plain old mold spores growing all over your digs. The reason many people do not live in Tropical Raiforests is quite similar to the reason they don't live in Arctic climates for the most part. Neither one is super conducive to living comfortably for Homo Saps! It's like the Three Bears Porridge problem, where one place is a little too HOT, another a little too COLD, and can you find a place that is JUST RIGHT? At the moment sure you can, the only problem is that all the JUST RIGHT places are packed to the gills with tons of Homo Sap meat walking around, or driving around. The only places you can get some SPACE for living have some issue that prevented many Homo Saps from moving there over the generations of multiplying up in numbers.
Now, could *I* survive up here in Alaska without a heating system in winter? Not anymore I couldn't, that is for sure. By the same token though, I don't think I would last too long in the Tropical Rainforest either. I have low tolerance for heat and humidity, and with all those bugs and snakes around I would probably run into a health issue from them at some point too. A snake bite requires a hopsital trip, and is there one close to me I can get to in time with anti-venom? What if my spine gives out and I am in terrific pain, can I get drugs to help me with that? Will my location be flooded out in a Super Typhoon? How about a Tsunami washing me out to sea? Plenty of death vectors in his neighborhood as well as mine.
In Alaska at the moment, an old cripple like me is completely dependent on the techo gimmicks created through the Age of Oil to keep his ass from either freezing to death or starving to death. Also dependent on modern medicine as a new health problem seems to crop up each day. But, if you are still reasonably young and healthy, Alaska is still a good survival zone, even in the absence of modern central heating systems and carz with batteries to start them and gas to run on. You don't absolutely NEED central heating, although it sure does make life a lot more comfortable, just as in fact HVAC makes living in the tropics a whole lot more comfortable. Difference of course is you can HEAT with just a FIRE, to COOL you need compressors and motors.
Given Average Global Temperature is RISING therefore, is it better to hole up in a low population zone that is already HOT, or in one that is still pretty COLD? You can probably make a case for either one if you try, but the bottom line on both types of environments is that you want to be in a low population zone with good resources, particularly with respect to food of course. NEITHER a Tropical Rainforest OR the Alaska Bush is a very comfortable place to live. That is WHY so few people live in such places!
As for me, I am hoping next Winter returns to matching up with total global temp increases and we get another mild winter up here so my cars will start and my heat will stay on all winter, and I can go out on the porch and smoke a cancerette without freezing my nuts off in 5 minutes. Just have to see how it goes of course.