For many people, snow is a welcome part of winter. However, when it starts to fall hard and fast, knocking out power and putting transport to a standstill, it can become deadly. It is important that you fully understand the differences between watches and warnings in order to better prepare yourself.
Understanding Cold Weather Warnings
Here in the UK we use watches and warnings during the winter weathers. These are as follows:
- Winter Storm Watch – when wintry weather conditions are expected in the next 12 to 48 hours a winter storm watch will be issued.
- Blizzard Watch – the winter storm watch will be upgraded to a blizzard watch when snow and wind gusts of at least 35 mph will drop visibility to less than a quarter mile for three hours or longer.
- Winter Storm Warning – the conditions are the same as that of a winter storm watch except that they are expected within the next 12 hours.
- Blizzard Warning – again, the same as a blizzard watch except that the conditions are expected within the next 12 hours
Our weather stations also use a color coding system that each reflect the likely impact of the weather.
- Yellow – low impact
- Amber – moderate impact
- Red – high impact
By understanding the different color codes, you can better prepare yourself for the incoming weather. You can expect to see a yellow triangle when light snow showers are expected in the area. This would change to amber if heavier snow is expected, and red meaning that damage could be caused to buildings and there is a possibility that lives will be lost.
Just because a red warning can mean a loss of life, this does not mean that there won’t be lives lost during a yellow or amber warning.
What is a Blizzard
Blizzards are dangerous winter storms that are a combination of blowing snow and wind resulting in very low visibilities, with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for an extended period of time (at least 3 hours). They can create life-threatening conditions.
During blizzards, with the combination of cold temperatures and strong winds, very low wind chill values can occur. It is not uncommon in the Midwest to have wind chills below -60F during blizzard conditions. Exposure to such low wind chill values can result in frostbite or hypothermia. Power outages can occur due to strong winds and heavy snow. Pipes can freeze and regular fuel sources may be cut off.
Worst in history
The deadliest blizzard on record happened in Iran in February 1972 where it claimed the lives of some 4,000 people. Over the course of six days the blizzard had dropped more than 10 feet of snow across the northern and central regions of the country. In southern Iran, however, the numbers were much more drastic. They received a total of 26 feet of snow, and two towns had no survivors. The snow took out power lines, buried towns, and crushed transportation. People were left without food, water, heat, and much needed medical supplies.
The storm stopped for 24-hours giving rescue workers a window of time to try and retrieve any survivors but they were largely unsuccessful. The storms started again, and they were forced to abandon the mission and left behind bread for anybody who could dig their way out of the snow tombs.
Winter Storm Plan
Learn about your area’s winter storm risk as different areas have different risks associated with winter storms. If you live in an area that is at risk from winter storms:
- Understand the hazards of wind chill, which combines the cooling effect of wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from a person’s body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. “Wind chill” is a calculation of how cold it feels when the effects of wind speed and temperature are combined. A strong wind combined with a temperature of just below freezing can have the same effect as a still air temperature about 35 degrees colder.
- Ensure that you have any necessary snow removal equipment in an easily accessible location before winter storm season.
- Keep your car’s gas tank full for emergency use and to keep the fuel line from freezing.
- Take a first aid course to understand how to treat exposure to the cold, frostbite, and hypothermia.
Keeping Children Safe
The best way to stay safe in a snowstorm is to stay inside where possible. Long periods of exposure to severe cold increases the risk of frostbite or hypothermia. Also, it is easy to become disoriented in blowing snow. If you and your children do go outside to play after a snowstorm, dress in many layers and wear a hat and mittens. Many layers of thin clothing are warmer than single layers of thick clothing.
Most body heat is lost through the top of the head so wearing a hat is essential. Keep hands and feet warm too. Mittens are warmer than gloves. Covering the mouth with a scarf protects lungs from extremely cold air.
Come inside often for warm-up breaks. Long periods of exposure to severe cold increases the risk of frostbite or hypothermia. If you start to shiver a lot or get very tired, or if your nose, fingers, toes, or earlobes start to feel numb or turn very pale, come inside right away and tell an adult. These are signs of hypothermia and frostbite. If you experience these symptoms, you will need immediate attention to prevent further risk.
Protecting Your Property
- Make sure your home is properly insulated. Caulk and weather-strip doors and windowsills to keep cold air out, allowing the inside temperature to stay warmer longer.
- Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic from the inside. This will provide an extra layer of insulation, keeping more cold air out.
- To keep pipes from freezing check out our guide here.
Put Together a Disaster Supplies Kit
You should already have your 72-hour emergency kit prepared, so here we are just going to look at some extra items that you need to include if you have a winter storm approaching.
- A warm coat, gloves or mittens, hat, and water-resistant boots for each member of the family.
- Extra blankets and extra warm clothing.
- Nonclumping kitty litter. Kitty litter will generate temporary traction. Rock salt will melt ice on walkways but can damage vegetation and concrete. Other, less damaging, ice melting products are available from building supplies stores.
- Consider storing sufficient heating fuel. Regular fuel sources may be cut off. Be cautious of fire hazards when storing any type of fuel.
- Before winter, be sure you install and check smoke alarms.
- Use only the correct fuel for your heating unit and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Refuel outdoors only, and only when cool.
- Keep your kerosene heater at least three feet away from furniture and other flammable objects.
- Install snow fences in rural areas to reduce drifting in roads and paths, which could block access to homes, barns, and animals’ feed and water.
- If you live in a flood-prone area, consider purchasing flood insurance to cover possible flood damage that may occur during the spring thaw. Homeowners’ policies do not cover damage from floods.
What to Do During a Winter Storm WARNING
or a Blizzard WARNING
- Stay indoors and dress warmly during the storm. Wearing layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing will keep you warmer than one bulky sweater. Remove layers to avoid overheating, perspiration and subsequent chill.
- Listen to a battery-powered radio or television for updated emergency information. If the power goes out, you will still have access to important information.
- Eat regularly. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat.
- Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Conserve fuel. Winter storms can last for several days. Great demand may be placed on electric, gas, and other fuel distribution systems (fuel oil, propane, etc.). Suppliers of propane and fuel oil may not be able to replenish depleted supplies during severe weather. Electric and gas services may be temporarily disrupted when many people demand large amounts at the same time. Lower the thermostat to 65°F during the day and 55°F at night. Close off unused rooms, and stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors. Cover windows at night.
- If you must go outside, protect yourself from winter storm hazards.
■ Wear layered clothing, mittens or gloves, and a hat. Layering clothes will keep you warmer than a single heavy coat. Outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent. Mittens or gloves and a hat will prevent loss of body heat. Mittens are warmer than gloves because fingers maintain more warmth when they touch each other. Half of your body heat loss is from the head.
■ Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extremely cold air. Avoid taking deep breaths; minimize talking.
■ Watch for signs of hypothermia and frostbite. Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that can cause permanent harm to people. A loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, nose, or earlobes are symptoms of frostbite. Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95°F. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion. Hypothermia is not always fatal, but for those who survive there are likely to be lasting kidney, liver, and pancreas problems. If frostbite or hypothermia is suspected, begin warming the person slowly and seek immediate medical assistance. Warm the person’s trunk first. Using your own body heat will help. Arms and legs should be warmed last because stimulation of the limbs can drive cold blood toward the heart and lead to heart failure. Put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket. Never give a frostbite or hypothermia victim alcohol or something with caffeine in it, like coffee or tea. Caffeine, a stimulant, can cause the heart to beat faster and hasten the effect the cold has on the body. Alcohol, a depressant, can slow the heart and also hasten the ill effects of the cold.
■ Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses much of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly away from the body.
■ Stretch before you go out. If you go out to shovel snow, do a few stretching exercises to warm up your body. This will reduce your chances of muscle injury.
■ Avoid overexertion, such as shoveling heavy snow, pushing a car or walking in deep snow. The strain from the cold and the hard labor may cause a heart attack. Sweating could lead to a chill and hypothermia.
■ Walk carefully on snowy, icy sidewalks. Slips and falls occur frequently in winter weather, resulting in painful and sometimes disabling injury.
- If you must go out during a winter storm, use public transportation if possible. About 70 percent of winter deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles.
- Have your car(s) winterized before the winter storm season. Keeping your car(s) in good condition will decrease your chance of being stranded in cold weather. Have a mechanic check your battery, antifreeze, wipers and windshield washer fluid, ignition system, thermostat, lights, flashing hazard lights, exhaust system, heater, brakes, defroster, and oil level. If necessary, replace existing oil with a winter grade oil. Install good winter tires. Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.
- If you have a cell phone or two-way radio available for your use, keep the battery charged and keep it with you whenever traveling in winter weather. If you should become stranded, you will be able to call for help, advising rescuers of your location.
- Keep a windshield scraper and small broom in your car for ice and snow removal.
- Put together a separate disaster supplies kit for the trunk of each car used by members of your household. You should also bring a thermos of warm broth if you are on the road during a winter storm. If you should become stranded during a winter storm, these items will make you more comfortable until the storm passes. The kit should include the following:
■ Several blankets or sleeping bags.
■ Rain gear and extra sets of dry clothing, mittens, socks, and a wool cap.
■ Extra newspapers for insulation.
■ Plastic bags for sanitation.
■ Canned fruit, nuts, and high energy “munchies.” Non-electric can opener if necessary.
■ Several bottles of water. Eating snow will lower your body temperature. If necessary, melt it first.
■ Cans of broth or soup.
■ A small shovel, a pocket knife, and small tools, such as pliers, a wrench, and screwdriver.
■ A small sack of sand for generating traction under wheels, a set of tire chains or traction mats.
■ Jumper cables.
■ A first aid kit and necessary medications.
■ A flashlight with extra batteries.
■ A candle in a metal can or other fireproof container. While candles are generally not recommended in disaster situations, having one in your car can be a source of heat and light if you are stranded.
■ Cards, games, and puzzles.
■ A brightly colored cloth to tie to the antenna.
- Keep your car’s gas tank full for emergency use and to keep the fuel line from freezing.
- Plan long trips carefully. Traveling during winter weather can be hazardous. Listen to the radio or call the state highway patrol for the latest road conditions. Plan to travel during daylight and, if possible, take at least one other person.
- Let someone know your destination, your route, and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
- Be aware of sleet, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and dense fog, which can make driving very hazardous. The leading cause of death during winter storms is from automobile or other transportation accidents. During winter weather conditions, multiple vehicle accidents are more likely to occur, resulting in injury and death. Avoid driving during sleet, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and dense fog — these serious conditions are often underestimated.
- If you do get stuck:
■ Stay with your vehicle. Do not leave the vehicle to search for assistance unless help is visible within 100 yards. Disorientation and confusion come very quickly in blowing snow. Avoid traveling during winter storms. If you must travel and do become stranded, it is better to stay in the vehicle and wait for help.
■ Display a trouble sign to indicate you need help. Hang a brightly colored cloth (preferably red) on the radio antenna and raise the hood (after snow stops falling).
■ Occasionally run engine to keep warm. Carbon monoxide can build up inside a standing vehicle while the engine is running, even if the exhaust pipe is clear. Experience has shown that running the heater for 10 minutes every hour is enough to keep occupants warm and will reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and conserve fuel. Turn on the engine for about 10 minutes each hour (or 5 minutes every half hour). Use the heater while the engine is running. Keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow and slightly open a downwind window for ventilation.
■ Leave the overhead light on when the engine is running so that you can be seen.
■ Do minor exercises to keep up circulation. Clap hands and move arms and legs occasionally. Try not to stay in one position for too long.
■ If more than one person is in the car, take turns sleeping. One of the first signs of hypothermia is sleepiness. If you are not awakened periodically to increase body temperature and circulation, you can freeze to death.
■ Huddle together for warmth.
■ Use newspapers, maps, and even the removable car mats for added insulation. Layering items will help trap more body heat.
■ Keep a window that is away from the blowing wind slightly open to let in air.
■ Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Severe cold can cause numbness, making you unaware of possible danger. Keep fingers and toes moving for circulation, huddle together, and drink warm broth to reduce risk of further injury.
■ Drink fluids to avoid dehydration. Bulky winter clothing can cause you to sweat, but cold dry air will help the sweat evaporate, making you unaware of possible dehydration. When individuals are dehydrated, they are more susceptible to the effects of cold and heart attacks. Melt snow before using it for drinking water. Eating snow lowers your body temperature, increasing risk from hypothermia.
■ Avoid overexertion. Cold weather puts an added strain on the heart. Unaccustomed exercise such as shoveling snow or pushing a car can bring on a heart attack or make other medical conditions
What to Do After a Winter Storm
- Continue listening to local radio or television stations or a NOAA Weather Radio for updated information and instructions. Access may be limited to some parts of the community, or roads may be blocked.
- Help a neighbor who may require special assistance — infants, elderly people, and people with disabilities. Elderly people and people with disabilities may require additional assistance. People who care for them or who have large families may need additional assistance in emergency situations.
- Avoid driving and other travel until conditions have improved. Roads may be blocked by snow or emergency vehicles.
- Avoid overexertion. Heart attacks from shoveling heavy snow are a leading cause of deaths during winter.
- Follow forecasts and be prepared when venturing outside. Major winter storms are often followed by even colder conditions.
Check out our post to know what to do when a winter storm traps you in your car.