Why Cape Town is colder than Oulu

People from both sides of the equator often ask me the same question: “How am I coping with the Arctic cold in Oulu?”

And I reply, “Well, actually I am more cold in Cape Town than I am in Oulu.”

Normally this is met with slightly confused looks, which I can understand because, this is me in Oulu in winter:

Bee in Oulu in winter

and this is me in Cape Town in winter


Ok, the Cape Town picture was taken on a particularly beautiful winter’s day (it rains a lot in winter in Cape Town) but still, no subzero temperatures or snow or ice or freezing rain.

So why is Cape Town colder than Oulu then? In Oulu I often sit inside in t-shirts and my friend from Indonesia wears slips slops in class. So what makes the difference?

Central and underfloor heating:

Every home, shop, restaurant, school, university classroom etc. has central heating in Oulu. Not only that but the homes (I’m not sure about the other places) also have underfloor heating. No “I need to get my slippers on before my feet freeze off”  here. The central and underfloor heating comes from the same place if your house is hooked up to the district heating (“kaukolämpö” in Finnish). This is a big heating factory in Oulu where water is heated by burning non-recyclable rubbish. This heated water is then pumped through the city and surrounds, into houses and keeps everyone cozy. This also keeps the electricity bill low because the heating is not run off electricity (they still have to pay for heating, but it is considerably cheaper than running heating off electricity). I have heard that is it quite normal in Oulu to keep the heating on all year round too. Central and underfloor heating is rare in Cape Town and expensive to run if a home does have it. We just put on another jersey if we are cold.

The floor of my flat, there s underfloor heating somewhere there I guess.

The floor of my flat, there s underfloor heating somewhere there I guess.

Adjustable central heating

Adjustable central heating

Double or triple glazing:

In Oulu, homes have double or triple glazing with the older houses having separate double windows. I did not notice how warm this kept me until I saw that some people (my Italian friends) sometimes kept their cheeses and sliced meats in the space between the two windows. Not, only that, but the windows close properly and shouldn’t let wind through. In Cape Town I have always had a home with windows that don’t close properly and some that do close still let the wind through.

3 windows in 1

3 windows in 1

Because most homes in Cape Town do not have central and underfloor heating or double glazing, it can often be colder inside the house than it is outside. When you walk into a home in Cape Town in winter, it is quite acceptable to keep your all your clothes on. By this I mean, if you come in with a coat or jacket on, it’s ok to keep it on because the house might be a bit chilly. If you did this in Oulu, you would create a sauna party for one inside your jacket. And as for heating in schools and universities… we used to bring hot water bottles and sometimes blankets to school so that we could be warm sitting in class. There was no heating at all in the classrooms unless the teacher brought a heater for the classroom. Some days in Cape Town I was so cold, I wore the snow pants I wear outside in Oulu, inside my house.

Proper warm outdoor clothes:

And this leads us to a very important point… clothing. Because it is subzero outside in Oulu in winter, people wear fleece and down and wool and thermals and padded shoes that don’t let water in. People wear hats and gloves and ear muffs and scarves and mittens. In Cape Town, if I wore all that, I would look ridiculous. Warm, but ridiculous. It is not soooooooo cold in Cape Town that all those subzero materials are necessary (although we do love our fleeces). It’s cold, but not cold enough.

I have always lived in a brick house and although I had windows that did not close my home was not flooded annually nor do the violent winter winds (sometimes hurricane strength) threaten to collapse my walls. This is not the story for many other Cape Townians for whom winter is a nightmare. The poor of Cape Town live in metal constructions that are built on sandy plains which flood every year. And every year when it’s cold and raining there are blanket drives (fundraising to distribute blankets among the poor) and food drives (fundraising to distribute food among the poor). These poor are not the homeless. They have homes, but their homes are even more inadequate to protect from Cape Town’s winters than mine.

Sometimes I think, “I wish it was really cold in Cape Town, like snowing cold, then, we would not, could not allow people to live in such inadequate housing”.  Things are being done by government and NPOs to change the living conditions for people in this situation but the issue is a complicated one and will take time and effort to solve. In the mean time every year we send blankets to help like putting a band-aid on a broke leg hoping that will help the leg heal.

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