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A Frosty Take On All Things 'Cold'

Aug 25, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Bill Streever's new book, Cold, is a collection of chilly vignettes about frozen Arctic explorers, killer blizzards and icicle frogs — among other icy topics.

A biologist who grew up in the eastern and southeastern U.S., Streever now lives in Alaska. He says he was attracted to the topic of cold because it seemed like a phenomenon that had been neglected — or, in some cases, demonized.

"Cold has gotten a bad rap," he tells Melissa Block. "But, in fact, in my experience, cold helps you feel alive. You walk outside on a brisk day, and there's nothing like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly you're awake. It's better than coffee. It's just great."

Streever jump-starts his narrative with a headfirst plunge in 35 degree Arctic waters, which, he writes, feels akin to "being shrink-wrapped, like a slab of salmon just before it is tossed into the Deepfreeze." Though he had done polar bear plunges in the past, this submersion — which lasted five frigid minutes — was like nothing he had experienced before.

"[Polar bear plunges are] a bit different than intentionally getting in and standing there as you cool off and sort of making mental notes to yourself about what's going on, and watching your thought process change as your body cools," he says.

Three minutes into the plunge, Streever began to shiver — which, he explains, is an instinct designed to raise a body's temperature: "Just like doing jumping jacks or running in place or setting a goal to walk quickly will warm you up, so will shivering. It's muscle activity, so it generates heat."

Humans aren't he only animals that shiver. Streever explains that the Arctic ground squirrel shivers off and on throughout its winter hibernation — as a means of staying alive.

"As [the squirrel] hibernates, he begins to cool off. In fact, he cools off to a temperature that's just below the freezing point of water, so around 30 degrees Fahrenheit," says Streever. "When he hits that temperature — when one would think this animal is, for all intent and purposes dead ... he spontaneously starts to shiver," and his temperature rises.

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