2011.11.30 If it feels too cold, then blame Paul Siple

Written by David Green.


It’s amazing what you can learn sometimes by just driving around. One day last spring, I found myself in Montpelier and saw an Ohio historical marker in front of a house near downtown. The marker identified it as the birthplace of Paul Siple, who devised the term “wind-chill factor.” Finally, I knew who to blame when the weather casters bring out those sub-zero numbers every winter. Siple, however, was known for much more.

Born in 1908 (or 1909, depending on the source), Siple’s family later moved to Pennsylvania. After earning 59 merit badges, Paul became an Eagle Scout. Entering a nationwide competition conducted by the Boy Scouts of America, Siple sought to become the Eagle Scout representative on an expedition to Antarctica conducted by famed explorer Admiral Richard Byrd.

Selected as one of six finalists for the spot, Siple and the others went through an exhaustive series of tests and tasks which only proved how close they were in all areas. Finally, someone had the idea to ask each of the six which of their competitors they would bring along if they were selected and could have one of the other five as a companion.

All five of Siple’s competitors chose him as the one they would add to the expedition. That broke the tie and earned him the spot. Thus began a relationship with the coldest continent which lasted the rest of his life.

Siple wrote a book about his adventures with Admiral Byrd in 1931, then a second book in 1932, the same year he finished studies for a B.S. degree in biology from Allegheny College. Luckily, he had finished work for his degree a year early, giving him the time to accompany Byrd on another Antarctic expedition in 1933-35.

Returning to North America, Siple published a third book in 1936, then focused again on his studies, earning a Ph.D. in geography in 1939 from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Adaptations of the Explorer to the Climate of Antarctica.”

Later that same year, Siple returned to Antarctica as part of the United States Antarctic Service Expedition. By then in his early 30s, Siple, with Byrd’s recommendation, not only was leader of the base set up by the explorers, but managed the logistics for the whole operation. 

It was during this expedition that Siple, with the help of Charles Passel, completed work on his earlier wind-chill research and created the wind-chill index. He eventually earned eight patents for clothing and other cold-weather protective gear.

Returning home in 1941, Siple’s reputation as a cold weather expert got him a civilian position with the government. After the onset of World War II, Siple was commissioned as an army captain. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He made his fourth trip to Antarctica in 1946-47 as a senior representative of the War Department, as well as the expedition scientific and polar advisor.

Siple returned to Antarctica for the fifth and final time in 1956-57. During his stay, he made the cover of Time magazine (on December 31, 1956). He published his fourth book in 1959 while working at the Army Research Office. Siple suffered a stroke while on assignment in New Zealand in 1966, then a fatal heart attack two year later while working at his desk. 

Siple’s name is all over the map of Antarctica with Siple Station, (a currently-mothballed research facility), and four geographic features named for him. They include Siple Ridge, Siple Coast, and Siple Island, plus Mount Siple, found on Siple Island. 

Some sources claim Mount Siple, at 10,203 feet in elevation, is possibly the highest mountain in the world never climbed by man. Others assume that the summit of Mount Siple has been reached at some point, but no proof exists. I’m a bit surprised Paul didn’t do it himself.

Everything considered, those are some pretty impressive accomplishments for a person born just a few miles away. Next time I’m in Montpelier, I’ll think I’ll stop by his birthplace and ask the current occupants if they turn off the heat during the winter as a tribute to the home’s former resident. What do you think they’ll say?

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