One of the things you can count on in Pittsburgh is that, no matter how hot or cold it gets, some oldster down the street is going to claim that it used to be much colder back in the winter of ought-six, or hotter in '37. "You kids today, with your iPods and your roller derbies don't know what hardship is," they say. And then nod sagely to themselves. As someone who aspires to be Pittsburgh's oldest living young person, I've said this sort of thing myself. (If you ask me, the coldest day in Pittsburgh history was Dec. 8, 2002, when the Steelers lost to the expansion Houston Texans. But to experience temperatures that low, you had to be at the game, watching it.)
But the truth is if you're old enough to be reading this newspaper -- especially the pages in the back -- you're old enough to remember the coldest day in Pittsburgh history.
According to the National Weather Service, which has temperature information back to 1871, that date was Jan. 19, 1994, when the temperature hit a low of 22 degrees below zero. Jan. 19 also holds the Weather Service's distinction for being the "coldest day on record" -- the 24 hours with the lowest average temperature.
How cold is 22 degrees below zero? Cold enough to kill an 81-year-old housewife in West Mifflin who'd stepped out to get her mail in her bathroom slippers, and as you know, nothing kills 81-year-old housewives in West Mifflin. Cold enough to compel then-Gov. Robert Casey to declare a state emergency and urge workers to go home early: Demand for electricity was so high that in some parts of the state, utilities engaged in "rolling blackouts" to prevent the entire grid from shutting down.
Of course, later on that day, things warmed up to a balmy -3 degrees. Along with a similarly chilly January day in 1982, it marks what the Weather Service calls the "lowest maximum temperature" in Pittsburgh history. But no doubt by 3 in the afternoon, some old dodger was muttering, "You call this cold? You don't know cold -- it just doesn't get as cold as it was this morning."
On the other end of the thermometer, three days in Pittsburgh's recorded history have topped out at 103 degrees. That temperature was recorded in July of 1881, August of 1918, and on July 16, 1988. That last date was at the end of the longest heat wave in history: a 13-day sweat-a-thon in which the high was never lower than 90 degrees. The closest Pittsburgh has ever come to that was all the way back in 1878, when even our really old people can't claim to remember.
Is Pittsburgh being affected by global warming? A lot of us will be hoping so come February, but just looking at highs and lows won't tell you much. For example, of the 10 lowest temperatures ever recorded in Pittsburgh, 5 were registered in the past 20 years. By contrast, only two of the 10 hottest temps every recorded took place in that time, and both of those were notched in the summer of 1988.
But obviously you can't just look at a handful of days to determine whether global warming exists. (You can't just look at Pittsburgh either -- that's why they call it global warming.) Even the Pentagon believes climate change will have sweeping and strategic effects on the U.S. When I heard this, I started making plans to buy up all of Hazelwood, on the assumption that someday it will be beachfront property. I mean, if our military planners say a threat exists, you know it just has to be real.
And now, a correction: Last week I called the Allegheny County municipality of Liberty a township. It is, in fact, a borough. And some readers may have inferred that the borough, like the city neighborhoods we know as "liberties," was so named because it had once been open grazing land available to all. Not so. As Jason Togyer, a son of Liberty himself, notes, Liberty Borough took its name when it separated itself from Port Vue. My apologies to Liberty, and to those who paid the ultimate price in casting off the yoke of Port Vue oppression.