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How Do You Calculate the Wind Chill?

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What does it really mean when my weatherman says that it feels like minus-20 in Chicago? Is there a wind chill thermometer somewhere, or is he just using a mathematical formula? Let's answer these and some of the other pressing questions about the ubiquitous winter statistic.

Why does wind make us feel cold?

When the wind blows across the exposed surface of our skin, it draws heat away from our bodies. When the wind picks up speed, it draws more heat away, so if your skin is exposed to the wind, your body will cool more quickly than it would have on a still day.

Who came up with the idea of calculating wind chills?

American explorer and geographer Paul Siple and his fellow explorer Charles Passel made the first breakthroughs in wind chill research while on an expedition in the Antarctic in 1940. Siple and Passel suspended bottles of water outside a hut at their base station and measured how long it took the water to freeze under various wind conditions. After taking hundreds of these readings, the pair had a good idea of how rapidly heat was lost at different wind speeds.

What exactly is a wind chill temperature?

storm-fieldWhen Siple and Passel did their research, they weren't really trying to develop a temperature equivalent that alarmist weathermen could trot out. In fact, their original measure expressed the heat loss in a more esoteric unit: watts per square meter.

The idea of expressing wind chills in terms of an equivalent temperature—the "feels like" language we hear on the news—didn't start until the 1970s. Before the switch, weathermen would report the wind chill in three- or four-digit numbers which were a bit difficult for viewers to wrap their heads around. American weathermen started translating wind chills into temperature equivalents in order to give viewers a more familiar term.

If the air temperature is 40 degrees but the wind chill is 28 degrees, will water freeze?

Nope. Although high winds can make those of us with a pulse feel more miserable than normal, they don't have the same effect on inanimate objects. Lower wind chills mean that inanimate objects cool to the air temperature more quickly, but even high winds can't force the object's temperature below the air temperature. That means that in the above example even though your skin might think it's 28 degrees, your water pipes will still be a balmy 40 degrees.

So is there an actual formula for wind chill?

You bet. Just in case you ever find yourself with a calculator, thermometer, and anemometer but without access to The Weather Channel, the Fahrenheit version of the equation looks like this:

Wind Chill = 35.74 + 0.6215T – 35.75(V^0.16) + 0.4275T(V^0.16)

T is the air temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, and V is the wind speed in miles per hour.

Wait, shouldn't how cold the wind makes you feel depend on all sorts of variables like your body type, and whether you're walking into the wind?

Those things certainly affect how quickly the wind cools a person's skin. The above formula makes some simplifying assumptions to get its numbers. Basically, the wind chill factor you hear reported assumes that your exposed face is roughly five feet off the ground, it's night, and you're walking directly into the wind in an open field at a clip of about 3 mph.

Are those conditions really all that realistic?

If you're in a profession that involves a lot of night-field-walking, sure. Otherwise, maybe not. Critics of wind chill reports note that lots of factors can mitigate the reported wind chill. Your weatherman may tell you that it feels like 50 below outside, but if you're dressed warmly, standing in the sun, or in an area with cover like buildings and trees that block the wind, you will feel significantly warmer.

So if the formula is arguably somewhat dubious, can we just disregard wind chill reports as frivolous statistics?

Not so fast. While the methodology concerning wind chill calculations is still being debated in some quarters, that doesn't mean that the measurements are altogether useless. Remember, the basic concept behind wind chill is that stronger winds will cause exposed skin to cool more quickly. The faster skin cools, the faster frostbite can set it. As wind chills drop south of -50 or so, the onset of frostbite can take as little as five minutes, so it's worth keeping an eye on the wind chill even if the notion of your skin "feeling like" a certain temperature may be a bit misleading.

Has the formula always been the same?

treadmill-coldThe above formula is actually a fairly new development that the National Weather Service introduced in late 2001. During the year 2000, the National Weather Service and its Canadian counterpart had independently started looking for ways to improve the wind chill formula, partially because they had a sneaking suspicion the old formula overstated just how cold it was. This overstatement may sound innocuous, but the weather services worried that it would lull citizens into a false sense of security if it led people to believe they could withstand colder temperatures than they realistically could.

Since the collaborating weather services knew that the old wind chill formula was broken—"feels like -50" actually felt much warmer than standing around on a windless 50-below day—they recruited a group of volunteers to walk on treadmills in a refrigerated wind tunnel. Using sensors on the subjects' skin, scientists calculated a more accurate formula. You can read one of the test subjects' thoughts on the experiments here.

What's the lowest wind chill ever recorded?

With all of the tweaks in the formula over the years, it's tough to say definitively, but how's this for chilly: on July 4, 2003, a remote weather station in east Antarctica picked up a minus-94 degree day. That would be plenty frigid on its own, but the wind was also blowing at 75 miles per hour, which would be good for a wind chill of about minus-150.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Big Questions
Why Do Onions Make You Cry?

The onion has been traced back as far as the Bronze Age and was worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians (and eaten by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt). Onions were rubbed over the muscles of Roman gladiators, used to pay rent in the Middle Ages, and eventually brought to the Americas, where today we fry, caramelize, pickle, grill, and generally enjoy them.

Many of us burst into tears when we cut into one, too. It's the price we pay for onion-y goodness. Here's a play-by-play breakdown of how we go from grabbing a knife to crying like a baby:

1. When you cut into an onion, its ruptured cells release all sorts of goodies, like allinase enzymes and amino acid sulfoxides. The former breaks the latter down into sulfenic acids.

2. The sulfenic acids, unstable bunch that they are, spontaneously rearrange into thiosulfinates, which produce a pungent odor and at one time got the blame for our tears. The acids are also converted by the LF-synthase enzyme into a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide, also known as the lachrymatory factor (or the crying factor).

3. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide moves through the air and reaches our eyes. The first part of the eye it meets, the cornea, is populated by autonomic motor fibers that lead to the lachrymal glands. When syn-propanethial-S-oxide is detected, all the fibers in the cornea start firing and tell the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.

4. Our eyes automatically start blinking and producing tears, which flushes the irritant away. Of course, our reaction to burning eyes is often to rub them, which only makes things worse since our hands also have some syn-propanethial-S-oxide on them.

It only takes about 30 seconds to start crying after you make the first cut; that's the time needed for syn-propanethial-S-oxide formation to peak.


The onion's relatives, like green onions, shallots, leeks and garlic, also produce sulfenic acids when cut, but they generally have fewer (or no) LF-synthase enzymes and don't produce syn-propanethial-S-oxide.


Since I usually go through a good deal of onions while cooking at home, I've been road testing some of the different methods the internet suggests for reducing or avoiding the effects of the lachrymatory factor. Here's what I tried:

Method #1: Chill or slightly freeze the onions before cutting, the idea being that this will change the chemical reactions and reduce the gas that is released.
Result: The onion from the fridge has me crying just as quickly as room temperature ones. The one that was in a freezer for 30 minutes leaves me dry-eyed for a bit, but by the time I'm done dicing my eyes start to burn a little.

Method #2: Cut fast! Get the chopping over with before the gas reaches your eyes.
Result: Just hacking away at the onion, I get in the frying pan without so much as a sting in my eyes. The onion looks awful, though. Doing a proper dice, I take a little too long and start tearing up. If you don't mind a mangled onion, this is the way to go.

Method #3: Put a slice of bread in your mouth, and cut the onion with most of the bread sticking out to "catch" the fumes.
Result: It seems the loaf of bread I have has gone stale. I stop the experiment and put bread on my shopping list.

Method #4: Chew gum while chopping. It keeps you breathing through your mouth, which keeps the fumes away from your eyes.
Result: This seems to work pretty well as long as you hold your head in the right position. Leaning toward the cutting board or looking right down at the onion puts your eyes right in the line of fire again.

Method #5: Cut the onions under running water. This prevents the gas from traveling up into the eyes.
Result: An onion in the sink is a hard onion to cut. I think Confucius said that. My leaky Brita filter is spraying me in the face and I'm terrified I'm going to cut myself, but I'm certainly not crying.

Method #6: Wear goggles.
Result: In an effort to maintain my dignity, I try my eyeglasses and sunglasses first. Neither do me any good. The ol' chemistry lab safety glasses make me look silly, but help a little more. I imagine swim goggles would really do the trick, but I don't have any.

Method #7: Change your onion. "Tear free" onions have been developed in the UK via special breeding and in New Zealand via "gene silencing" techniques.
Result: My nearest grocery store, Whole Foods, doesn't sell genetically modified produce or onions from England. Tonight, we eat leeks!

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Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.


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