Over the past few years, I've heard the term "shock and awe" in reference to some pretty major events. I think that maybe we got a little "shock and awe" during our December snowfall and cold, followed by some pretty treacherous ice in early January. Over the past few years, we've been lulled to sleep here in northwest Iowa by some pretty mild winters. Remember when there was concern over whether the Winter Games could be held on the ice?
Well, I think we just got a little wake-up call. Real winter-the old fashioned kind that I remember as a kid-can be life-threatening.
Since we still have plenty of winter left, let's take a look at some weather terminology and what they mean.
According to the U.S. Weather Service, the wind chill index is used to provide warning about conditions that could lead to frostbite or hypothermia. Forecasters issue wind chill warnings when wind chills of minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit or lower are expected with winds of 10 mph or more. Wind chill values near minus-25 degrees meana frostbite can occur in as little as 15 minutes.
The key to avoid frostbite is to not expose your skin to the cold. During that last cold spell, when the wind was really blowing out of the northwest, I found as I shoveled snow that I really needed something over my face. Often, people think if they have a hood on that they don't need to cover their face, or if they just need to be out in the cold for a few minutes, they don't need gloves or something to cover their head. However, the fingers, nose and ears are three areas that are especially susceptible to frostbite. At least half of a person's body heat is lost if the head is left uncovered.
Beyond frostbite comes hypothermia. It is the most common weather killer in winter. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, disorientation, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.
We are potentially much better prepared for severe weather than we have ever been. Weather forecasts predict well in advance potentially dangerous weather conditions, and we now have cell phones or car phones that help keep us in touch with the rest of the world. They can be especially beneficial when we get caught out in the weather.
Here is a quick review of the different warnings weather forecasters give prior to potentially dangerous winter weather:
Ice Storm Warning This is issued when freezing rain will cause coating of ice expected to reach 1/4 inch thick or more on objects and make travel nearly impossible.
Winter Storm Watch This is issued when there is a potential for a winter storm to affect the region during the next 1 to 3 days. It does not always mean the area will be hit by a storm. This is a planning stage during which time people can get prepared or maybe change their travel plans.
Winter Weather Advisory - Advisories are issued for those winter weather events that are expected to be more of an inconvenience and should not become life-threatening if caution is exercised. These are often issued for 3 to 6 inches of snow, blowing and drifting snow, freezing drizzle, or a combination of these elements.
Winter Storm Warning - Winter Storm Warnings are usually issued when dangerous winter weather is expected, occurring, or imminent. The weather can become life-threatening. Criteria includes snowfalls of 6 inches or more in 12 hours, 8 inches in 24 hours, or lower amounts if accompanied by strong winds or a combination of dangerous winter elements. Avoid unnecessary travel.
Blizzard Warning This is the most dangerous of all warnings. They are issued when snow or blowing snow lowers visibilities to a 1/4 mile or less, wind gusts hit 35 mph or higher, and the storm lasts for three hours or more. Travel is dangerous and should be avoided if possible.