Blizzards and winter storms can be very dangerous. Blowing snow can easily cause you to get lost when you’re only steps away from your car. Cold and windchill can cause frostbite or hypothermia if you’re not dressed for the weather. Even trying to drive during a winter storm can easily result in a bad accident.
It’s not just how cold it is, it’s how fast the heat energy is leaving your body. Any amount of wind will strip away heat faster than just the cold alone. Windchill can be written as the approximate equivalent temperature or as the amount of energy being lost.
Either way, it’s usually better to avoid being in the wind during a winter storm. If you’re stuck on a road, stay inside your car. If there’s lots of blowing snow, make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow. Two people and a candle provide plenty of heat to survive for a day or so, especially if you always keep your gas tank full during the winter. If you’ve packed a proper vehicle emergency kit, you’ll also have warm blankets, water, plenty of food, and a signalling device.
Whenever the temperature or windchill is more than ten degrees below freezing, it’s a good idea to put on a scarf or balaclava and to try to breathe through your nose. Cold air can literally freeze your lungs.
Icy patches are always dangerous, but an ice storm coats everything with a slick layer of ice. A heavy ice storm can deposit more ice than even snow tires can deal with. Until the road surface has been sanded, there is no traction at all.
You can also expect to lose electricity in most ice storms when the wires break under the weight of falling trees. In a really bad ice storm, such as the four-day Montreal ice storm of 1998, even the huge electrical pylons bent double under the ice. The power grid went down completely, and had to be rebuilt. Much of the area didn’t get power back for a month.
Fortunately, most ice storms don’t last that long. It’s usually only a matter of waiting a couple of extra hours for the roads to be sanded and being prepared to go without electricity for a few hours. If you’ve prepared for winter, you’ll be able to take it in stride.
When you’re cleaning up after an ice storm, be very careful when clearing away fallen branches. If you suspect that there may be a live wire, do not attempt to deal with it yourself. Call the local electricity company instead.
When wind is whipping around loose snow, the visibility can drop to zero in a split second. If you’re driving, you can’t see the traffic or even the road in front of you. If you’re on foot, you can get lost at the end of your own driveway. For this reason, Environment Canada recommends that farmers tie ropes between their barns and house before winter storms hit, so that they can use the ropes to guide them to safety.
If you’re driving in an area prone to snow squalls, be prepared for visibility to drop to zero with no warning. Use safe winter driving practices, including leaving lots of space between you and the car in front of you in case you have to slow down in a hurry. If the road is closed, don’t drive around the barrier. In extreme conditions, the police might not be able to rescue you.
Please don’t underestimate this one. When snow squalls closed down Highway 402 and stranded over three hundred drivers in December 2010, most of the drivers stayed in their cars until they were rescued the next day by helicopter. Others went in groups to nearby homes and businesses, with local help getting there. In the meantime, the police had been going from car to car by snowmobile, making sure everyone could stay warm enough until more help could arrive through the snow. We thought everyone had been accounted for, but it turned out one driver tried to go for help on his own. The police found him three days later, dead of hypothermia. He was just metres away from his car.
When exposed or underdressed skin starts to freeze, the affected region starts to tingle. This soon becomes a a pins-and-needles feeling which gets stronger and stronger, until it feels like your skin is on fire. As long as you can still feel it, this is still the mild stage of frostbite.
When you stop feeling it, frostbite gets a lot more dangerous. Prolonged frostbite can lead to gangrene and loss of fingers and toes. Left untreated, frostbite can kill.
Treatment of frostbite hurts! Circulation has to be restored to the frozen parts of your skin, and that’s going to be accompanied by the same burning feeling you had when your skin was starting to freeze, only intensified. Mild frostbite can be treated by applying gentle heat, but prolonged frostbite should always be treated by a professional.
Frostbite also has lasting effects. Once skin has been frozen, it’s damaged forever.
During a winter storm, hypothermia can strike with little warning. The earliest sign that your core body temperature has dropped is that you can’t stop shivering. Your skin is pale and covered with goose bumps. Your hands become numb, and it becomes harder and harder to talk or use your fingers with precision. The shivering gets stronger as body temperature continues to drop, making you more and more tired. If you start to feel warm at that point, you are in big trouble.
The easiest way to deal with hypothermia is to dress appropriately for the weather. Even if you’re going on a short car trip, keep a parka, hat, mittens, and proper snow boots in the car, just in case. Do you really want to be changing a car tire in the middle of a snow storm while dressed for an indoor party?
Mild hypothermia can be treated by wrapping up warmly and applying gentle outside heat, such as hot water bottles. The affected person should not drink alcohol or cold caffeinated beverages. However, if you have hot coffee, getting the heat inside the person is more important than the effect of the caffeine.
For anything other than mild hypothermia, be careful in applying other people’s body heat, because they can also get chilled when in contact with the affected person. For severe hypothermia, get the victim out of the cold, wrap them up as warmly as you can, and get medical attention immediately.
Ice and snow are heavy. When combined with high winds, many trees will fall, some roofs will cave in, and some homes will lose electricity.
Some of this can be prevented by pruning trees and adding wire supports for vulnerable branches. If you live in an ice-prone area, it’s a good idea to look at your house from upwind and see which trees could cause damage if they fell.
Flat roofs are much more likely to collapse under the weight of snow than pitched roofs. If too much snow accumulates on top of your roof, shovel or rake it off.
Be prepared to hold out for at least three days in case the electricity goes out. Winterize your home before winter hits. Most reasonably insulated houses can hold heat quite well. I just had a chance to test this myself, when the old furnace decided to choke on me despite the fall checkup, so I left it off for safety until it could be fixed. The house lost about a degree of heat every couple of hours, while it was twenty below freezing and windy outside. After a day or so, you won’t be exactly warm, but that’s what down comforters are for.
However, you’ll want to keep the house heat at least five degrees above freezing, so you don’t have to deal with frozen water pipes. Running and saving as much hot water as you can usually does the trick. Keep the taps dripping all the time. If you don’t have a natural gas water heater, you’ll have to bring in a source of heat, but be careful with anything involving burning or open flames. Keep heat sources away from anything flammable, and make sure you have adequate ventilation and working carbon monoxide detectors at all times.
It’s a good idea to have a battery-operated radio, just in case the weather turns into a real emergency. That way, you can monitor the progress of the storm and the emergency crews. Your own home is your best shelter against the winter, especially after you have prepared a winter safety kit. Why leave it unless you have to?
Most winter property damage comes from car accidents. Nearly all of those accidents are preventable through proper winter driving techniques, or even by staying off the road until conditions improve. Unless you’re an emergency worker yourself, nothing is so important that it can’t wait a few hours.
Winter storms are dangerous. There’s no getting around that. However, most of the dangers of winter storms can be minimized by giving winter the respect it deserves.