Winter Weather Safety & Preparation
by Kelly Cebulko, MS
Consulting Meteorologist | Shade Tree Meteorology
We at Shade Tree Meteorology are thrilled to have been invited to be a guest author on the Martin, Harding & Mazzotti blog. As meteorologists, our goal is to help as many people as we can prepare for weather and all the challenges that inclement weather might bring. We hope that this information will help you feel prepared for the upcoming winter season.
As this is written in mid-December 2020, widespread reports of 18 to 30 inches of snowfall are being reported across the Capital region – with even higher totals in Binghamton!
Not only that, but the snow has not even concluded yet, and this storm has already ranked in the top 10 snowstorms to ever hit Albany. This makes this a perfect time to review winter safety and preparedness as we are already in the throes of winter weather, although winter has yet to officially begin.
Safety From The Extreme Cold
Arctic air, combined with brisk winds, can lead to dangerously cold Wind Chill values.
Wind Chill is the term used to describe the rate of heat loss from the human body resulting from the combined effect of low temperature and wind. As winds increase, heat is carried away from the body at a faster rate, driving down both the skin temperature and eventually the internal body temperature.
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.
Protect Yourself From Wintry Precipitation
All wintry precipitation (even rain!) actually begins as snow, or ice crystals, high in the atmosphere. The air temperatures between the upper atmosphere and the surface have a huge impact on the type of precipitation that falls.
Snow and rain are easy enough to understand – the air temperature either remains below freezing between the atmosphere and the ground (allowing the snow to fall to the ground as pure snow), or it encounters warm air and the air temperature remains above freezing all the way to the surface (melting the snow and producing rain).
That leaves us with sleet and freezing rain, which are commonly confused…but their impacts are widely different! Sleet are ice pellets which encounter a shallow layer of warm air, allowing them to melt partially, before falling through a deeper layer of air with temperatures that are below freezing.
This journey means that sleet completely refreezes before reaching the surface and will then bounce on contact with surfaces, resulting in minimal impacts. Depending on the intensity and duration, sleet can even accumulate on the ground much like snow.
The biggest trouble-maker in winter precipitation is freezing rain, snowflakes that have encountered a deeper layer of temperatures above freezing, allowing them to melt into a liquid.
Temperatures below freezing at or near the surface allow the precipitation to freeze on contact with surfaces, wreaking havoc. Even light ice accumulation on roadways, sidewalks, powerlines, trees, and more can have huge impacts on travel, infrastructure, and health.
Sneaky Winter Weather Hazards
The first snow, snow squalls, sun glare, and flash freezes are all sneaky winter hazards. For example, while lots of snow in the middle of winter can certainly cause dangerous travel conditions, many times it’s the first little bit of snow of the season that can cause accidents as there is no residual salt on the roads and people tend to “forget” how to drive in the snow.
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.
Rain may seem like less of a winter driving hazard than snow, but when temperatures are near freezing, that’s not the case. Ice can form quickly and make roads and sidewalks slick. In these conditions, slow down, don’t use cruise control, and keep plenty of distance between you and other vehicles. Make sure that you keep your properties salted. Furthermore, even when it’s not precipitating, wet roads can quickly turn icy as temperatures dip below freezing.
These unexpected slippery conditions can make traveling hazardous. Even on a nice winter day, the low sun angle can make driving hazardous. Freshly fallen snow can add more glare to your drive. Remember: when roads look wet in the winter, stay cautious, slow down, and don’t use cruise control. Make sure that you keep your properties salted.
How To Prepare For Winter Weather
Regardless of the exact weather phenomena, the best way to avoid unnecessary injuries or accidents is to prepare for them before they arrive. 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.
- Check your local forecast at www.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 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 home, work, and car emergency kits.
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 winter safety supplies 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.REMEMBER: if including canned foods, don’t forget a can opener!
- 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.
Additionally, extra care needs to be taken for your vehicle or when preparing to drive. When traveling, try not to travel alone, and be sure to let someone know your travel plans – your timetable and planned route. Make sure your car emergency kit is stocked as well!
Conclusion – What To Do After A Winter Storm
After a winter storm, 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 to prevent any wet areas from refreezing.
- Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow, take breaks when needed, and drink plenty of fluids. Keep yourself and your clothes dry.
Furthermore, after a storm has passed (or at least once annually if you are fortunate enough not to have to use yours in a full year), remember to refill your supplies. Every storm is different, and it is important to always be prepared.
Having all of your materials in one place means that you don’t have to worry when hazardous weather strikes because you’re already prepared!