Extremely cold air comes every winter in at least part of the country and affects millions of people across the United States. The arctic air, together with brisk winds, can lead to dangerously cold wind chill values. People exposed to extreme cold are susceptible to frostbite in a matter of minutes. Areas most prone to frostbite are uncovered skin and the extremities, such as hands and feet. Hypothermia is another threat during extreme cold. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce.
Cold weather can also affect crops. In late spring or early fall, cold air outbreaks can damage or kill produce for farmers, as well as residential plants and flowers. A freeze occurs when the temperature drops below 32°F. Freezes and their effects are significant during the growing season. Frost develops on clear, calm nights and can occur when the air temperature is in the mid-30s. Each plant species has a different tolerance to cold temperatures. You may also want to check out our winter safety site for snow and more cold season hazards information.
Prepare for Cold Weather
The way to avoid frostbite and hypothermia is to plan for extreme cold before it arrives. Don't get caught unprepared.
- Check the Forecast at weather.gov or your favorite weather app, station, etc.: Make checking the forecast part of your regular routine so you'll know when to expect cold weather.
- Adjust Your Schedule: If possible, adjust your schedule to avoid being outside during the coldest part of the day, typically the early morning. Try to find a warm spot for your children while waiting for the school bus outside.
- Protect Your Pets, Livestock and other Property: If you have pets or farm animals, make sure they have plenty of food and water, and are not overly exposed to extreme cold. Take precautions to ensure your water pipes do not freeze. Know the temperature thresholds of your plants and crops.
- Fill up the tank: Make sure your car or vehicle has at least a half a tank of gas during extreme cold situations so that you can stay warm if you become stranded.
- Update Your Winter Car Survival Kit: Make sure your car survival kit has the following:
- Jumper cables: flares or reflective triangle are great extras
- Flashlights: replace the batteries before the winter season starts and pack some extras
- First Aid Kit: also check your purse of bag for essential medications
- Baby, special needs gear: if you have a baby or family member with special needs, pack diapers and any special formula or food
- Food: stock non-perishable food such as canned food and a can opener, dry cereal and protein rich foods like nuts and energy bars
- Water: have at least 1 gallon of water per person a day for at least 3 days
- Basic toolkit: pliers, wrench, screwdriver
- Pet supplies: food and water
- Radio: battery or hand cranked
- Cat litter or sand: for better tire traction
- Shovel: to dig out snow
- Ice scraper: even if you usually park in a garage, have one in the car.
- Clothes: make sure you dress for the weather in warm clothes, gloves, hat, sturdy boots, jacket and an extra change of clothes.
- Warmers: pack extra for body, hands, feet
- Blankets or sleeping bags: if you get stranded in traffic on a lonely road, you'll be glad to have it.
- Charged Cell Phone: keep a spare charger in your car as well
Essential Tasks After it Warms Up
- Check Your Pipes: Your pipes may be frozen. Water pipes on exterior walls and in places that are subject to cold, like in the basement, attic, and under kitchen cabinets, freeze most often. Water expands as it freezes, causing pipes to burst. If they are frozen, first turn on the faucet. Water will drip as you warm the pipes. Heat the pipes using a space heater, heating pad, electric hair dryer, or hot water on a cloth. Never use an open flame. Continue until water pressure returns to normal or call a plumber if you have more issues.
- Salt Your Walkways: Once it warms up enough to go out, it's important to shovel the snow from your sidewalks and driveway or sprinkle salt if there is ice. If there is a thick layer of snow on the ground you cannot move, salt the area so that the snow melts. You should also put down salt if there is ice on your stairs leading into your house--less than a quarter inch of ice can be dangerous!
- Call Your Neighbors: Check to see that your neighbors are okay after the storm, particularly seniors, disabled persons or others living alone. Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the leading causes of death after storms, particularly when there are power outages. Cases of frostbite and hypothermia are also common for elderly people who were stuck in their homes.
- Refill Your Supplies: This storm may be over, but there might be another one soon. Every storm is different, so it is important to always be prepared.