Way Cool!

MARGARET L. BENNER

July 25, 1991|By MARGARET L. BENNER

If you lived in Antarctica, you would probably be waking up today to temperatures that routinely hover around -60 degrees Fahrenheit.

But it all depends. If you lived on the coast, you could look forward to a temperature that usually fluctuates between -22 degrees and a balmy -4 degrees during July and August. Outside your kitchen window, you would see ''ice fog'' or tiny frozen ice crystals hanging in the air like a great veil.

If you lived farther inland, however, you could expect brisker readings somewhere between a crisp -95 degrees and -40 degrees, with almost zero visibility.

And even farther inland, at the South Pole, where the yearly mean temperature is about -72 degrees, you would be used to the thick, impenetrable ice cap held down by continually swirling, frigid, violent winds. It's all relative.

Like any Antarctican with good sense, you would want to keep warm today. So you would stay inside your house, built intact -- like those of your neighbors -- inside a deep trench dug into the three-mile-thick snow and ice, covered with a low metal arch to withstand the massive pressure of monstrous snow drifts formed by winds up to 200 m.p.h.

Unless, of course, your neighbor phones to invite you over for a tall mug of steaming hot cocoa. . . .

In this case, you would prepare to go outside. You would dress very carefully, donning layers of everything, including socks that you must remember to change at least once a day since perspiration freezes in these temperatures, resulting in instant frostbite. You would not have to worry about insect bites in July here, however: The only land animals that can survive this environment are some wingless flies and microscopic creatures. Heaving a sigh of relief for small favors, you would next make sure to cover every part of your body -- knowing that at only -22 degrees, inactive, exposed human flesh freezes solid in one minute.

Next, you would make your way cautiously from the outer door of your house to your snowmobile parked ten yards away, knowing how easily you could become lost on the way and quickly freeze to death in the snow-filled darkness. You would use guide ropes, ice picks and snow spikes to maneuver even this simple trip. Better safe than sorry.

(You would not forget to wear your mittens: Touching your

vehicle's handle with bare hands would freeze your fingers to the metal, and you would have to tear flesh away to free your hands.)

Yes, you would be exquisitely careful driving to your neighbor's. After all, this is a land where mercury freezes to a solid metal, where a steel bar dropped on the ground shatters like glass, where tin simply gives up and disintegrates into granules, where a fish hauled out of the ice water freezes solid within five seconds, where a cup of boiling water thrown into the air freezes instantly, and where frozen fingers turn white like candle stubs.

You would guide your snowmobile oh-so carefully to avoid falling into one of the many cracks in the snow and ice. These ''crevasses,'' which may be either very small or extremely wide and over 100 feet deep, are hidden by snowdrift ''bridges'' that act like trap doors.

Finally, though, you would arrive. After parking your snowmobile and descending into the trench surrounding your neighbor's house, you would raise one ice-encrusted mitten to the knocker on the outer door. Clop-clopping your heavily-protected feet through several layers of doorways, you would finally make it to the innermost door and open it to the comfort of a kitchen chock full of blessed heat and the enticing smells of cooking.

You would remove your heavy boots and begin to change your socks for the first time today. You neighbor would place a giant mug of steaming hot cocoa on the table beside you.

And if the neighbor happened to hail from Baltimore, you would undoubtedly be welcomed with the words, ''Cold enough for ya?''

Margaret L. Benner writes from Baltimore.

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