The Case for Polar Vortexes—They're Better Than Extreme Heat

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A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 7 2014 10:34 AM

Extreme Cold Beats Extreme Heat

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Hasids in winter.

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

It is very cold today in Washington, D.C., as it is in much of the country. Unpleasantly so. I am not one of those people here to tell you about how if you think this is cold, you should try January in Burlington, Vt. But I am here with this message. As unpleasant as extreme cold can be, it is much much much less bothersome than extreme heat.

The crucial issue is clothing and adaptability. I went out today wearing a warm hat and warm gloves and a scarf. I had four layers on my torso. I wore some corduroy pants, a warm pair of socks, and some boots. All things considered, I was pretty comfortable. Don't get me wrong, not as comfortable as I am on a nice 72 degree day. I am very glad that D.C. winters don't normally get this cold. Still, I survived.

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Contrast that with a very hot and humid day of the sort that we regularly experience in the summertime here and elsewhere in much of the country.

A T-shirt and shorts may be comfortable at 85 degrees. But then what about 95 degrees? What about the occasional day when it's 102? You run out of options fast. And even shorts and a T-shirt only get you so far. If your agenda for the day involve a friend's wedding, a business meeting, or even a nice dinner than you're out of luck. Doomed.

So why are so many people confused about this? Part of it is that in my experience people from California and Texas (and probably from the in-between states) tend to adopt a quasi-principled refusal to dress appropriately on cold days. But that's on them. The larger issue is that I think there's a warm weather cognitive bias because it's a lot more fun to go on vacation in warm weather. If it's a nice hot day and you're on vacation then you're in good shape. Enjoy a cool beverage in the sun. Relax in the pool. Swim in the ocean. This is all good stuff. In terms of cold weather recreation, there's not much. Skiing, I guess, for fancy people. But hot vacation definitely beats cold vacation, and vacation definitely beats working. So people get it mixed up in their heads and think hot = fun while cold = not. But that's a confusion. You're not on vacation most of the time. And when you're not on vacation, you're better off with extreme cold than extreme heat.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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