Winter Weather Preparedness

This week has been designated as Winter Weather Awareness Week in New York, and several other states across the country. Some states, such as Colorado, have already had their campaign for winter weather, while other states – such as Alabama, have a few weeks to go before their campaign kicks off. However, this is a great refresher for anyone to prepare for the upcoming season!

This is the perfect time to begin thinking about and preparing for the upcoming season, as the National Weather Service is forecasting that an Arctic-sourced air mass will sweep across the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. over the next few days. This Arctic-sourced air will support an extended stretch of below to much below normal temperatures, which brings us to our first preparedness topic.

Cold

Extreme temperatures are responsible for hundreds of fatalities each year in the U.S., but determining a death toll for each is a process subject to large errors. In fact, two major U.S. government agencies that track heat and cold deaths–NOAA and the CDC–differ sharply in their answer to the question of which is the bigger killer.  NOAA’s official source of weather-related deaths is a monthly publication called Storm Data, which is often based on media reports, and tends to be biased towards media/public awareness of an event. NOAA estimates that approximately 33 people have died each year from 2008 – 2017. On the other hand, the CDC tracks deaths based on death certificates, and their records indicate that approximately 1,300 deaths were attributed to extreme cold annually between 2006-2010. Furthermore, some studies think that even these numbers are likely underestimated.

Regardless of the exact number, it is universally understood that cold weather is hazardous and not something that should be taken lightly. The arctic air, combined with brisk winds, can lead to dangerously cold wind chill values. People exposed to extreme cold are susceptible to frostbite in a matter of minutes. Areas most prone to frostbite are uncovered skin and the extremities, such as hands and feet. Hypothermia is another threat during extreme cold. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce. The best way to avoid these is to prepare for extreme cold before it arrives.

  • Check your local forecast at weather.gov. Make checking the forecast part of your regular routine so you’ll know when to expect cold weather.
  • Adjust your schedule. If possible, adjust your schedule to avoid being outside during the coldest part of the day, typically the early morning. Try to find a warm spot for your children while waiting for the school bus outside.
  • Protect your pets, livestock, and crops. If you have pets or farm animals, make sure they have plenty of food and water, and are not overly exposed to extreme cold. Take precautions to ensure your water pipes do not freeze. Know the temperature thresholds of your plants and crops.
  • Use caution when trying to stay warm. Heating fires are a major cause of residential fires. Turn off portable heating devices when you are away from home or retire for the evening. Have your fireplace and chimney professionally inspected before winter. Carbon Monoxide is most likely to accumulate inside homes during winter. Check your heating systems and ensure your home has proper ventilation. Install a UL listed Carbon Monoxide detector that sounds an alarm.
  • Fill up the tank: Make sure your car or vehicle has at least a half a tank of gas during extreme cold situations so that you can stay warm if you become stranded.
  • Dress for the outdoors even if you don’t think you’ll be out much. Dress warmly in loose-fitting, layered, lightweight clothing. Wear mittens that are tight at the wrist, and cover your mouth and nose with a scarf.
  • Update your “Car Winter Survival Kit”

Snow, Sleet, and Freezing Rain – Oh my!

Effective snow and ice control starts with proper planning well in advance of the first snowfall. The first step in preparing for winter weather is probably understanding the difference in all three types of wintry precipitation. Most precipitation that forms in wintertime clouds starts out as snow because the top layer of the storm is usually cold enough to create snowflakes. Snowflakes are just collections of ice crystals that cling to each other as they fall toward the ground. Precipitation continues to fall as snow when the temperature remains at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit from the cloud base to the ground.

Sleet occurs when snowflakes only partially melt when they fall through a shallow layer of warm air. These slushy drops refreeze as they next fall through a deep layer of freezing air above the surface, and eventually reach the ground as frozen rain drops that bounce on impact. Depending on the intensity and duration, sleet can accumulate on the ground much like snow.

Freezing rain occurs when snowflakes descend into a warmer layer of air and melt completely. When these liquid water drops fall through another thin layer of freezing air just above the surface, they don’t have enough time to refreeze before reaching the ground. Because they are “supercooled,” they instantly refreeze upon contact with anything that that is at or below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit), creating a glaze of ice on the ground, trees, power lines, or other objects. Even light accumulations can cause dangerous travel, while heavier amounts can cause significant damage to trees and power lines.  A significant accumulation of freezing rain lasting several hours or more is called an ice storm.

Several of the tips for preparing for extreme cold also apply to preparing for wintry precipitation. Check your forecast, make a plan accordingly based on the expected weather conditions, and dress appropriately when you need to go outside. When traveling, try not to travel alone, and be sure to let someone know your travel plans – your timetable and planned route. You should also be sure to have a safety kit at home and at work. At home and at work, the primary concerns are the potential loss of heat, power, telephone service and a shortage of supplies if storm conditions persist. You should have the following available at both locations:

  • A flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Battery-powered NOAA weather radio and portable radio to receive emergency information. These may be your only links to the outside.
  • Extra food and water. High-energy food, such as dried fruit or candy, and food requiring no cooking or refrigeration is best.
  • Extra medicine and baby items.
  • First aid supplies.
  • Heating fuel. Fuel carriers may not reach you for days after a severe winter storm.
  • Emergency heating source, such as a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, etc. Learn to use properly to prevent a fire, and be sure to have proper ventilation.
  • Fire extinguisher and smoke detector. Test your units regularly to ensure they are working properly.

Be sure that the storm has passed completely before starting any cleanup efforts. Following the storm, inspect the outside of your home carefully. If you have lost your power, always be aware that down lines and wires should be considered live and could be lurking under snow causing them to be even more dangerous. Take care when clearing sidewalks, driveways, and roofs around your home and business. It is a good idea to apply an appropriate ice melt agent after clearing. Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow, take breaks when needed, and drink plenty of fluids. Keep yourself and your clothes dry.

Snow Squalls

Valentine’s Day Squall in 2015, Port Matilda, PA.  Courtesy: Greg DeVoir, NWS

Snow squalls, often associated with strong cold fronts, are another key wintertime weather hazard. They move in and out quickly, and typically last less than an hour. The sudden white-out conditions combined with falling temperatures produce icy roads in just a few minutes. Squalls can occur where there is no large-scale winter storm in progress and might only produce minor accumulations. Snow squalls can cause localized extreme impacts to the traveling public and to commerce for brief periods of time. Unfortunately, there is a long history of deadly traffic accidents associated with snow squalls. Although snow accumulations are typically an inch or less, the added combination of gusty winds, falling temperatures and quick reductions in visibility can cause extremely dangerous conditions for motorists.

Snow squalls differ from snowstorms by their duration. Snow squalls are usually very short-lived (on the order of 30-60 minutes) and extremely intense. A snow storm could last for several hours or even days. Snow squall warnings are short-fused and focused on distinct areas (like tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings). These warnings provide critical, highly localized life-saving information. If a snow squall warning is issued for your area, avoid or delay motor travel until the squall passes through your location.

If a snow squall warning is issued for your area, avoid or delay motor travel until the squall passes through your location. There truly is no safe place on the highway during a snow squall. However if you are already in transit and cannot exit the road in time, reduce your speed, turn on your headlights and hazard lights and allow plenty of distance between you and the car in front of you. It’s also best not to slam on your brakes.  With slick/icy roads, this could contribute to the loss of vehicle control and also increase the risk of a chain reaction crash.

Winter weather too often catches people unprepared. Researchers say that 70 percent of the fatalities related to ice and snow occur in automobiles, and about 25 percent of all winter related fatalities are people that are caught off guard, out in the storm.  A great way to keep ahead of a winter storm is with NOAA Weather Radio (NWR), a small receiver device that can be purchased at many electronic stores. As the “Voice of the National Weather Service,” it provides continuous broadcasts of the latest weather information from local National Weather Service offices.

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