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Jonathan is an emergency management coordinator with a passion for all things weather. He currently lives in south-central Pennsylvania with his wife and son.

Winter Weather Preparedness Tips

Nov 11, 2011

Winter weather, like it or not, is on the way. Some areas have already had their first taste of winter and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that some areas of the US may experience a harsher than normal winter. Most recently, the state of Alaska experienced what state officials called an “epic winter storm” which caused widespread damage and resulted in at least one person possibly swept out to sea.

 
Adverse winter weather includes extreme cold, heavy snow, flooding and ice storms.
 
Extreme cold primarily threatens your health, especially when combined with strong winds. This combination of cold and wind is known as wind chill and is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed parts of the body. Risks to persons exposed to the cold include frostbite and hypothermia. Hypothermia – or the lowering of the body temperature below 95 degrees – is the most dangerous. Hypothermia can affect anyone; however, elderly persons and young children are most susceptible. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, slurred speech, and disorientation. The best defense against the cold is to dress warmly. Wear a hat and mittens and dress in several layers of warm, loose fitting clothing. Experts also advise the outer most layer should be water resistant. 
 
National Weather Service Windchill Chart
 
Heavy snow can literally stop everything in their tracks. Heavy snows have the potential to strand motorists, paralyze a city, close airports and train stations, and disrupt the flow of crucial supplies. Rural areas may be isolated for days and unprotected live stock may be at risk to be lost. Typically, heavy snows have the potential to have a major economic impact to large geographic areas.
 
Image courtesy of FEMA
 
 
Flooding can sometimes follow heavy snows when unseasonably warm air surges into an area with a heavy snowpack. While this usually occurs in the spring, there have been numerous incidents over the last few decades where this has occurred during the winter months. As warm air rises over cold air at the surface, rain develops. The rainfall, combined with the melting snow saturates the ground and causes waterways to swell.   Winter flooding can also be caused by ice jams. This occurs when river ice breaks up and runs into obstructions such as islands, river bends, or shallow areas such as sand bars. The ice begins to stack up and forms a jam, causing river water to back up behind it. Ice jams can cause backwater flooding or flash flooding downstream. Backwater flooding, as the name implies, is cause by water rising behind the jam, much like a dam. As pressure on the ice jam increases, the ice jam can burst, sending a wall of water downstream. Finally, surface flooding can occur in poor drainage areas that are frozen over or covered with plowed snow.
 
Ice storms, like heavy snow storms, have the potential to paralyze large geographic areas. Ice storms tend to reach further south in the continental US, further south than most heavy snow events. Heavy ice accumulations can lead to treacherous travel and bring down trees, power lines, and communications infrastructure. Because of the potential large area impacted by an ice storm, persons who lose power should be prepared to be without power for days. 
 
Image courtesy of FEMA.
 
With all of these adverse conditions, motorists are often those most at risk. Winter is the most dangerous time of the year for drivers. Nearly 75% of winter weather related fatalities occur on a road. Winter weather puts an extra strain on vehicles, so be sure your vehicle is in good mechanical working order. Also be sure to pack winter weather survival equipment in your car including: a blanket or sleeping bag; first aid kit; flashlight with fresh batteries; shovel; sand or cat litter for traction; booster cables; tow rope; ice scraper and brush; high energy non-perishable food; and a spare cell phone charger or battery. Finally, be sure to drive as cautiously as possible. If you do not need to travel during adverse weather conditions, it is best to stay home.
 
Finally, as the official start of winter is still more than a month away, take time now to take precautions to protect you, your family, and any business interests from adverse winter weather conditions. Know the types of severe winter weather which typically occur in your area. Pay attention to weather forecasts as severe winter weather is often predicted from three to five days in advance.
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