About a year ago, Chicago saw one of its biggest storms in years – what was termed the North American Blizzard of 2011. This year, winter seems to be unseasonably warm, but we all know how weather can turn on a dime. The problem for many of us is recognizing the various weather terms on the news and distinguishing the difference between what is mild and what is really dangerous. Between the hurricane category levels, the old Homeland Security threat levels and the new air quality trackers – all the categories become a jumble inside my head.
There are many different categories the National Weather Service has established. Their meanings can even vary a little from state to state, so it’s important to stay tuned to your local news. Here are a few important winter warnings to be aware of and what they mean. Being able to identify the meaning behind these winter warnings can help you plan ahead and avoid a dangerous situation.
Wind Chill Advisory
The National Weather Service issues a wind chill advisory when the wind chill could be life threatening if action is not taken. Although the criteria vary from state to state, it’s a good idea to pack on some extra layers and cover any exposed skin if headed outside.
Wind Chill Warning
When the wind chill becomes life threatening, this status is issued. Increased wind speeds accelerate heat loss from exposed skin. As a general rule, the threshold for potentially dangerous wind chill conditions is about -20°F. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to frostbite due to the poor circulation that develops as we age. Wear mittens and cover your ears and nose with a scarf or hat.
This warning is typically issued during the growing season, and applies to conditions in which surface temperatures are expected to drop below freezing over a large area, for an extended period of time — regardless of whether or not frost develops. This is an important warning to remind you to protect your plants and pipes from damage caused by the drop in temperatures.
Winter Weather Advisory
A winter weather advisory is issued when a low pressure system produces a combination of winter weather (snow, freezing rain, sleet, etc.) that presents a hazard, but does not meet the warning criteria. An advisory is a good hint to fill up your gas tank and plan ahead for possible delays.
Winter Storm Watch
This is issued when there is a potential for heavy snow or significant ice accumulations, usually at least 24 to 36 hours in advance. Be careful when walking on ice to avoid falls and remember to be cautious when shoveling snow; if you have a heart condition or asthma due, keep in mind the additional strain exercise places on the body in the cold.
Winter Storm Warning
This status is issued when a winter storm is producing or is forecast to produce heavy snow or significant ice accumulations. Let the severe weather begin. Fire up the crock pot or order pizza and snuggle up to a good movie.
A blizzard warning is issued for winter storms with sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less. These conditions are expected to prevail for a minimum of 3 hours. Plan on not going anywhere for at least a day. Make sure you have batteries for flashlights in case there is a power outage, as well as plenty of food and water to see you through a couple of days in the event you are snowed in and local businesses are closed.
Keep your eyes and ears on the weather during the winter months so you can be prepared for whatever comes your way. Like mom always said, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
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