CLOSE
Original image
iStock

7 Common Causes of Death During Winter Storms

Original image
iStock

Death is not a pleasant topic of conversation. Yet we’ve all confronted our own mortality at some point, and it’s not uncommon to wonder how we’ll ultimately shuffle off this mortal coil. Hopefully your time is later rather than sooner, but not everybody is so lucky. As the dead of winter slowly creeps toward us, so too will an unfortunate spate of accidents that will claim a significant number of our hemispheric colleagues. Here are some of the ways foul winter weather can do you in, and what you can do to stop your number from coming up this season.

1. CAR ACCIDENTS

The vast majority of people who die in winter storms perish as the result of car accidents. A 2015 study from the University of Georgia noted that winter storms directly claimed 571 lives between 1996 and 2011; however, this number jumps to a staggering 13,852 deaths over the same period if you include car and plane crashes caused by winter storms.

It’s easy to say that the best way to prevent injury or death during a winter storm is to just stay home, but that’s not an economic reality for millions of people who have to trudge to work regardless of snow and ice. If you ever have to venture out during a winter storm, try to take more heavily-traveled routes if possible, since highway crews treat those roadways first. Make sure you have emergency supplies in your car—food, water, a way to stay warm, a cell phone charger, a full tank of gas, batteries, flashlights, a first aid kit, a shovel, and litter or sand for tire traction—in case you get stuck for a long period of time.

If your vehicle starts to slide on ice, take your foot off both the gas and the brake, gently steering into the direction the back of your car is sliding; if the back of your car is sliding left, gently turn left to correct. If you’re involved in a pileup accident, stay in your car until the coast is clear, then quickly get as far off the side of the road as possible. Pileup accidents, or accidents that involve many cars (sometimes hundreds) at once, are a significant hazard during winter storms.

2. SLIP AND FALLS

Slipping on an icy sidewalk or driveway is almost a rite of passage for people who grow up in colder climates. It seems like we all know somebody who broke an arm or a leg when they fell victim to gravity during or after a winter storm. These slips aren’t always just broken bones, and falling the wrong way can critically injure or even kill you.

If you have to venture across an icy surface, sprinkle salt, sand, or cat litter ahead of you to give you some traction as you walk. If none is available, walk with a flat foot. We normally walk heel-toe, heel-toe, which puts all of your body weight on a small part of your foot, leaving you susceptible to slipping. If you walk with a flat foot (like a penguin), you spread your weight out over a larger area and give yourself more control.

3. SNOW SHOVELING

Shoveling snow is a grueling exercise that can leave you sore and gasping for air after a couple of scoops. Powdery snow doesn’t weigh much at all, but a nice shovel full of heavy, wet snow can weigh more than 20 pounds. Do that a few dozen times to clear your sidewalk, and you’re going to be hurting tomorrow.

Doing that kind of strenuous activity can wreak havoc on your body; the Cleveland Clinic reports that shoveling snow sends more than 11,000 people to the hospital every year. While most of those injuries are caused by the act of shoveling itself, many of them are victims of heart attacks from the strenuous, sudden exercise. To prevent injury, make sure you stretch before shoveling snow, and take frequent breaks while you’re clearing it away. Keep your hands at least a foot apart on the shovel's handle, keeping one hand as close to the blade as you can comfortably hold it. Try to push the snow (like a snow plow) when possible to minimize strain. If you know you have health issues, it's best to find or hire someone else to shovel snow for you.

4. HYPOTHERMIA

Your mother didn’t tell you to wear your coat for nothing. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can force your body temperature dangerously low, a condition known as hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment in order to fully recover. If left unchecked, it can quickly kill you.

Hypothermia is a silent killer; most of the people who succumb to this weather-induced condition are ill or elderly, and many of the thousands of hypothermia deaths every year go almost unnoticed compared to folks who die in events like tornadoes or hurricanes.

You can protect yourself from hypothermia by making sure you’re always prepared for extreme cold by having emergency supplies like coats, blankets, and heat sources in your home and vehicle. If you have plans to venture outdoors, keep up with current forecasts to ensure that you’re not caught outside during a major cold snap. Also make sure you check on your elderly or susceptible neighbors during cold weather, and help them out if you can.

5. THIN ICE

The danger of falling through thin ice is closely tied to hypothermia. It’s common for still bodies of water to develop a layer of ice during bouts of bitterly cold temperatures, but that ice is often much weaker than it looks. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (and Minnesota would know), it takes at least four inches of solid ice to be able to walk across it without falling through. The ice should be at least five inches thick to drive a snowmobile or ATV across, and it needs to be about a foot thick in order to safely drive across it in a personal vehicle like a car or truck.

6. FALLING TREES AND ICE

It doesn’t take much ice or snow to put enormous stress on trees or power lines. It only takes a few inches of wet snow, or a quarter of an inch of ice accretion, to cause weaker branches and power lines to fall. Higher amounts of wintry precipitation can cause even stronger objects to break, and a major winter storm can bring down even the mightiest trees and metal transformer towers. Make sure you keep trees and large limbs away from your house, and don’t walk underneath anything sagging or leaning under the weight of snow or ice.

It’s not just falling trees or power lines that can cause you harm; falling ice itself can weigh as much as a large rock and hit the ground with enough velocity to kill you instantly. This is a major problem around skyscrapers, where officials may have to close entire city blocks to foot and vehicle traffic due to ice falling from great heights.

7. ROOF AND BUILDING COLLAPSES

Last but not least, even your own home or local grocery store isn’t immune from the weight of frozen water. Extreme amounts of snow, ice, and standing water on a building’s roof can strain the structure to the point of failure. This is especially common in commercial buildings with large, flat roofs (like box stores or warehouses), but it can also happen to homes with existing structural issues. The best way to make sure the roof doesn’t cave in on you is to make sure your home or building is structurally sound, and try to (safely) clear away any snow and ice that could stress the building to the point of failure.

Original image
RAMMB/CIRA
arrow
science
The Coolest Meteorological Term You'll Learn This Week
Original image
Two tropical cyclones orbiting around each other in the northwestern Pacific Ocean on July 25, 2017.
RAMMB/CIRA

What happens when two hurricanes start to invade each other's personal space? It's easy to picture the two hurricanes merging into one megastorm that tears across the ocean with twice the fury of a normal storm, but what really happens is less dramatic (although it is a beautiful sight to spy on with satellites). Two cyclones that get too close to one another start to feel the pull of a force called the Fujiwhara Effect, a term that's all the rage in weather news these days.

The Fujiwhara Effect occurs when two cyclones track close enough to each other that the storms begin orbiting around one another. The counterclockwise winds spiraling around each cyclone force them to participate in what amounts to the world's largest game of Ring Around the Rosie. The effect is named after Sakuhai Fujiwhara, a meteorologist who studied this phenomenon back in the early 1900s.

The extent to which storms are affected by the Fujiwhara Effect depends on the strength and size of each system. The effect will be more pronounced in storms of equal size and strength; when a large and small storm get too close, the bigger storm takes over and sometimes even absorbs its lesser counterpart. The effect can have a major impact on track forecasts for each cyclone. The future of a storm completely depends on its new track and the environment it suddenly finds itself swirling into once the storms break up and go their separate ways.

We've seen some pretty incredible examples of the Fujiwhara Effect over the years. Hurricane Sandy's unusual track was in large part the result of the Fujiwhara Effect; the hurricane was pulled west into New Jersey by a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States. The process is especially common in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, where typhoons fire up in rapid succession during the warmer months. We saw a great example of the effect just this summer when two tropical cyclones interacted with each other a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro pulled a fantastic animated loop of two tropical cyclones named Noru and Kulap swirling around each other at the end of July 2017 a few thousand miles off the coast of Japan.

Typhoon Noru was a small but powerful storm that formed at about the same latitude as Kulap, a larger but much weaker storm off to Noru's east. While both storms were moving west in the general direction of Japan, Kulap moved much faster than Noru and eventually caught up with the latter storm. The Fujiwhara Effect caused Typhoon Noru to stop dead in its tracks, completely reverse its course and eventually perform a giant loop over the ocean. Typhoon Noru quickly strengthened and became the dominant cyclone; the storm absorbed Kulap and went on to become a super typhoon with maximum winds equivalent to a category 5 hurricane.

Original image
Kelly Gorham
arrow
Space
Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse
Original image
Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios