January Thaw

January 19, 2010

It felt like a holiday around here over the long weekend: three days without homework for the kids, a similar reprieve from driving and deadlines for Jim and me.

Our holiday spirits were boosted even higher by a happy change in the weather. After waking up to gray skies for days on end, we opened our eyes on the first day of the weekend to clear skies — and sun. What’s more, temperatures that had sunk below zero on Thursday ascended above 40 on Saturday.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Meteorologists have identified a “singularity” — a weather event that occurs at a particular time of year more frequently than chance would indicate — in the Northeastern United States in the latter half of January. They’ve observed a historical trend of about four days in the second half of the month, often between January 20 and 24 and often after a cold snap, when temperatures rise above freezing and stay about 10 degrees above the seasonal mean.

Folk-lore has already given this phenomenon a name: the January thaw. To thaw, according to my dictionary, means to melt, which the snow on our roof was certainly doing on Saturday. To thaw also means “to become free of the effect of cold as a result of exposure to warmth.” My dictionary helpfully lists the following effects of cold: stiffness, numbness, hardness.

Everywhere I looked on Saturday, I saw loosening, softening, warming. Icicles dripped onto the porch. Bare ground poked through in a couples of patches on the south-facing hill behind the house. Our dirt road, which has been frozen since early December, turned into muddy ruts. The year’s first frost heaves buckled the pavement down on the state highway.

The four of us felt it, too. We couldn’t stay inside, even though the tree needed taking down, papers needed filing, and other chores called. I went for a long cross-country ski thinking I was dressed appropriately but ended up peeling off two layers on top and doing without gloves altogether. When I came back, I went looking for Ursula. I found her out back, lying in the snow, grinning. She patted the snow next to her, and I joined her, turning my face up to the sun, too. Moments later, I felt something solid splatter my jacket. Ursula exulted. “Finally, it’s decent snowball snow!”

I know it won’t stay like this. In fact, I don’t want it to. If we’re going to have winter, I want a real season, with snow to ski on and ice to skate on and smooth, frozen roads. And sure enough, the forecast calls for a return to below-freezing temperatures later this week.

There’s a third definition of “thaw” in my dictionary: “to abandon aloofness, reserve, or hostility: unbend.” I know this mid-winter holiday marks Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthdate. But it feels right to me that our remembrance of his life and his vision of social justice often coincides with a seasonal thaw. We can become numb to injustice, harden ourselves against change. Along about the third week of January, we need to be reminded not to freeze too far down, and to look for spring.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.