Winter Weather Awareness Week: Wind chills and their dangers

Cold and wind can combine to create dangerous conditions
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 11:28 AM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - November 14-18 is Winter Weather Awareness Week this year in Alabama as winter gets closer and closer. Winter weather may not occur here as much as it does to our north, but it does happen every year.

Winter weather ranges from wintry precipitation like snow, sleet and freezing rain to extreme cold and wind chills. I’m going to focus on the wind chill side of things for this story.

A wind chill is what it feels like outside when factoring in the air temperature and wind speed averaged out at five feet above the ground. It can be determined without using any math at all! A readily available chart makes it very simple; all you need is the air temperature and wind speed at your location.

Wind chill alerts are issued if wind chill temperatures get low enough.
Wind chill alerts are issued if wind chill temperatures get low enough.(NWS Birmingham)

If the wind chill is low enough a special alert will be issued by the National Weather Service. For most counties in the WSFA 12 News viewing area the alerts are as followed:

  • Wind Chill Advisory: wind chill temperatures of 0° to -9° expected
  • Wind Chill Watch: potential for wind chill temperatures to reach or exceed -10°
  • Wind Chill Warning: wind chill temperatures of -10° or colder expected

When these alerts are issued -- which is not all that often here -- they should be taken seriously. They are only issued because wind chills that are that cold can be dangerous to humans and animals. Wind chill values that low make frostbite possible in as little as 30 minutes on exposed skin. Wind chills that low also make hypothermia more likely to occur if you’re spending time outdoors.

The wind makes us lose body heat much faster.
The wind makes us lose body heat much faster.(NWS Birmingham)

The reason why the wind chill is so important is because on a cold, breezy day our bodies lose heat much quicker. Without the wind, it’s easier for the human body to maintain a healthy temperature near 98.6°F. When wind gets added to the equation the thin layer of warmth surrounding our bodies gets blown away. This can lead to hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat. It can occur when the body’s temperature reaches or goes below 95 degrees. A breezy or windy day makes it more likely for that to happen. Signs of hypothermia include confusion, shivering, difficulty speaking, sleepiness, and stiff muscles.

Both of these are dangerous and often require medical assistance.
Both of these are dangerous and often require medical assistance.(NWS Huntsville)

Frostbite is also a medical emergency that can happen when it gets cold enough. Windy conditions can make frostbite more likely, just like with hypothermia. Frostbite is when damage occurs to body tissue due to extreme cold. It becomes more likely when wind chills drop to -10° or below.

A loss of feeling or white/pale appearance in fingers, toes, ear lobes, or the tip of the nose are warning signs of frostbite. If this starts to occur be sure to seek medical attention right away. Before professional help is available it is recommended that you drink warm fluids and put on extra layers of clothing.

Even if you don’t get all the way to hypothermia or frostbite, the cold can be impactful and harmful. It doesn’t take a medical emergency to suffer from very cold wind chills. This winter make sure you adhere to all cold weather safety tips and guidelines to stay safe.

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