The last word: Five minutes in the Arctic Ocean

Author Bill Streever takes a plunge into 35-degree water and shrugs off the pain. When it comes to extreme cold, he explains, explorers and ground squirrels have endured far worse.

It is July 1 and 51 degrees above zero. I stand poised on a gravel beach 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and a mile of silt-laden water separates me from what is left of the ice. The Inupiat—the Eskimos—call it aunniq, rotten ice, sea ice broken into unconsolidated chunks of varying heights and widths, like a poorly made frozen jigsaw puzzle. A few days ago, all of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay stood frozen. During winter, it is locked under 6 feet of ice. Trucks drive on it to resupply an offshore oil production facility. If one were insane, or if one were simply too cheap to fly, one could walk north to the North Pole and then south to Norway or Finland or Russia. Temperatures would range below minus 50 degrees, not counting windchill.

But even in summer, the weather resides well south of balmy. A chill gust runs through me as I stand shirtless on the water’s edge, wearing nothing but swimming shorts in the wind and rain.

“The only way to do this,” I tell my companion, “is with a single plunge. No hesitation.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

I go in headfirst. 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 am 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 is tossed into the Deepfreeze.

My companion, standing on the beach, tells me that I have been in the water for one minute. My toes are now numb.

Time passes slowly in water of this temperature. I think of the ground, permanently frozen in this region to a depth of 1,800 feet. I think about hypothermia, about death and near death from cold. I think of overwintering animals. I think of frozen machinery with oil as thick as tar and steel turned brittle by cold. I think of the magic of absolute zero, when molecular motion stops.

After two minutes, I can talk in a more or less normal tone. But there is little to discuss. There is, just now, almost no common ground between me and my companion, standing on the beach. I feel more akin to the German soldiers whose troop carrier foundered, dumping them into Norwegian coastal waters in 1940. Seventy-nine men did what they could to stay afloat in the 35-degree water. All were pulled alive from the water, but the ones who stripped off their clothes to swim perished on the rescue boat. Suffering more from hypothermia than those who had the sense to stay clothed, they succumbed to what has been called “afterdrop” and “rewarming shock.” Out of the water, they reportedly felt well and were quite able to discuss their experience. But as the cold blood from their extremities found its way to their hearts, one after another they stopped talking, relaxed in their bunks, and died.

“Three minutes,” my companion tells me.

I am a victim of physics. My body temperature is moving toward a state of equilibrium with this water, yielding to the second law of thermodynamics. I shiver.

Several hundred miles southwest of here, six days before Christmas in 1741, the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, employed by Russia, lay down in the sand and died of scurvy and exposure, while his men, also immobilized by scurvy, cold, and fear, became food for arctic foxes. Some accounts hold that Bering spent his last moments listening to the screams and moans of his dying men. The Bering Sea, separating Russia and Alaska, was named for him.

Never mistake frostbite for hypothermia. Frostbite freezes extremities, while hypothermia cools the body’s interior. Humans function best at a core temperature of just under 99 degrees. When the core drops to 95, significant symptoms appear. People shiver uncontrollably. They become argumentative. They feel detached from their surroundings. As their minds slow, they become what winter travelers refer to as “cold stupid.” They become sleepy. At a core temperature of about 93 degrees, amnesia complicates things. Do we turn right or left? Did I put that glove in my pocket? Have I been here before? It is possible to survive core temperatures as low as 87 degrees, but only with rescue and rewarming. At this temperature, hallucinations are common. A survivor might report looking down from above on his own struggling body. Victims at this point have crossed the line between cold stupid and what is sometimes called “cold crazy.” Just shy of death, victims may experience a burning sensation in the skin. This may be a delusion, or it may be caused by a sudden surge of blood from the core reaching the colder extremities. The last act of many victims is the removal of their clothes, what doctors sometimes call “paradoxical undressing.”

Since Charles Darwin’s time, the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago at the southern tip of South America, have been admired for their ability to withstand the cold. Take a man of European, African, or Asian heritage, lay him down next to an Alacalufe native of Tierra del Fuego, and it is not the native who is abject and miserable but the shivering European or African or Asian. The European or African or Asian shivers to maintain a reasonable body temperature, while the Alacalufe stays warm without shivering, through what is sometimes called “nonshivering thermogenesis.” They have a metabolic rate as much as 40 percent higher than that of other races, allowing them to maintain a normal body temperature while sleet runs off their skin.

In Darwin’s day, the Aborigines of Australia slept naked on the ground, even in the colder regions of the continent, where temperatures might drop below freezing. Unlike the Alacalufe, the Aborigines did not stay warm but had adapted to cold through a different path. An Aborigine lying on the ground would become colder than a European, an African, or an Asian. When his body temperature hit the point that would trigger shivering in the European or African or Asian, the Aborigine would not shiver. He would enter a state of shallow hypothermia, unperturbed. During the night, his core temperature might drop four degrees, to 95 degrees. He would then enter what has been called a state of “nightly torpor,” perhaps something like that of hungry titmice or finches, which is something like daily hibernation.

“Four minutes,” my companion calls. The stinging in the skin of my thighs has turned to a burning pain. Frostbite is not a real possibility at this temperature, and true hypothermia is at least 10 minutes in the future. What I feel is no more than the discomfort of cold.

Ground squirrels spend the winter underground. In their winter tunnels, their body temperature drops to the freezing point, but they periodically break free from the torpor of hibernation, shivering for the better part of a day to warm themselves. And then they drift off again into the cold grasp of hibernation. Through winter, they cycle back and forth—chill and shiver, chill and shiver, chill and shiver—surviving.

Frogs are not found this far north, but at their northernmost limit, 500 miles from here, they winter in a frozen state, amphibian Popsicles in the mud. Frogsicles. Caterpillars also freeze solid in winter, then thaw out in spring to resume foraging.

The soil surrounding a frogsicle or a frozen ground squirrel behaves strangely. Underground, liquid water is sucked toward frozen water, forming lenses of almost pure ice. The soil expands and contracts with changing temperatures, forming geometric shapes, spitting out stones on the surface, cracking building foundations. Occasionally, people have built unheated additions onto their homes for storage or as garages, only to see the heated part of the house descend. In Dawson City, Alaska, northwest of Fairbanks, two frame buildings built during the Klondike gold rush lean together, the ground beneath warmed by the buildings above. To see them is to wonder just how much these people were drinking when they laid the foundations, but they are due not so much to alcohol as to warming and drunkenly subsiding ground.

The water I stand in feels frigid, bitingly cold, but in the greater scheme of things it is not so cold. A block of dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide—has a surface temperature just warmer than minus 110 degrees. The surface of Pluto stands brisk at minus 369 degrees. Absolute zero is some 500 degrees colder than the water that surrounds me.

In Arizona, a man named James Bedford has been stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 346 degrees since 1967, awaiting a cure for cancer. Frogs and ground squirrels notwithstanding, one might not, a priori, hold out much hope for Bedford. Despite the care taken in freezing him, at the temperature of liquid nitrogen he would have suffered from the destruction of cellular membranes. Sharp ice crystals would have formed where the glycerol that was pumped into his veins failed to flush out the water. It seems unlikely that he will be successfully thawed. A reporter recently put the question of ethics to a cryonics professional. The reporter phrased the question somewhat delicately, along the lines of, “What if you can’t wake the patient up?” The response: “Well, you’re dead. I don’t see a problem with that.”

“Five minutes,” my companion tells me. I leave the water, shivering, my muscles tense. It will be two hours before I feel warm again.

From Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places by Bill Streever. ©2009 by Bill Streever. Used by permission of Little, Brown and Co., a division of Hachette Book Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.