Snow can be a beautiful part of winter, but too much of a good thing can soon become dangerous. Light snow can quickly turn into a destructive blizzard. Unlike other storm phenomena experienced around the United States, snow brings with it the very dangerous addition of cold.
Snow poses a danger on several fronts. First is the wet cold. Moisture combined with cold temperatures are the perfect ingredients for hypothermia. Snow can also limit or even eliminate mobility. If you find yourself snowbound in a car away from help, such a situation can be potentially lethal. Even the sheer mass of snow makes it extremely dangerous. With 20 pounds per cubic foot of force, a lot of snow can carry enough weight to crush cars, homes and people.
While there are many places that deal with heavy snow across the U.S., there are a few that stand out. The snowiest area in the U.S. is the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. The south flank of Mount Rainier has the record of 671 inches in one season, making avalanches very real possibilities.
While every part of the country has its’ own unique weather, few are as dramatic as Nor’easters. These are large cyclonic type storms that generally form within 100 miles of the East Coast, and are named for their consistent and strong winds that drive them onto shore. They are capable of traveling inland throughout the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions. Cold arctic air collides with the warmer Gulf Stream and creates the opportunity for severe weather to develop.
As with any storm, Nor’easters are capable of forming at any time. They most commonly develop between September and April as the weather cools down, making it a very real possibility for Nor’easters to occur in tandem with snowfalls. These storms can carry with them flooding, hurricane force winds and blizzard conditions, making them extremely diverse in the misery they can provide. Mix in the occasional tornado that has formed in these phenomenon and the Nor’easter becomes one of the most dangerous storms faced by the U.S.
Ending up snowbound and unprepared can have tragic consequences. If you live in an area that is prone to high snowfall, it is important to hope for the best but plan for the worst. This is also true in areas where snow is not as common. These areas are usually paralyzed with even moderate amounts of snowfall. Like many citizens, local governments are not prepared for the snow, either. Power outages and freezing temperatures can quickly combine for a dangerous challenge. The key is to plan ahead.
After stocking up for the worst, it is important to stay where you are. Avoid prolonged exposure to the cold, and especially snow. Keep one room in your home warm and use it as a central sleeping spot. If you have a family, it can be much warmer having everyone in the same room. Listen to weather updates and emergency notices. While it sounds silly, playing board games and other fun activities can do a great deal to reduce stress and improve your state. Manage your food and supplies carefully. You may be stranded for a day, a week or maybe more depending on the weather. Harsh winter weather in 2013 saw multiple winter storms hit regions in succession. Plan for a minimum of a week indoors, or longer if space allows.
If you are stranded outside, it is critical that you seek shelter as quickly as possible. By digging into the snow you can create a small snow cave. While it may seem counterintuitive, this cave can help keep you out of the wind and allow you to warm up slightly. As soon as it is safe to do so, you must seek a permanent structure to stay in until the storm passes.
If you are trapped in your vehicle, you should stay where you are. Keep doors and windows closed to keep heat inside. Only run the car for brief periods to raise the temperature inside. If the snow is very heavy, leave the vehicle for brief periods to clear the windshield and lights. Do not overexpose yourself to outside conditions and get back inside quickly. If you live in a region accustomed to large amount of snow, you should have a smaller version of the aforementioned emergency kit for your personal vehicle.
Winter injuries are real. Many people each year report injuries sustained through falls on slick surfaces to even puncture wounds from ice. If you sustain an injury, cover the wound and seek medical treatment. If the wound is a puncture-style wound, leave the object (yes, even ice) in the wound and seek immediate medical attention.
You can’t change the weather, and it seems forecasting can be a bit of a guessing game. But do not wait until a storm is imminent to act. Be prepared for any snowstorm that Mother Nature throws at you.
While snow is well known for creating dangerous conditions, ice can pose an even deadlier threat. Difficult to see in most instances, it has been the source of countless car accidents and serious falls. With that in mind, let’s look at various ice dangers and how to deal with them effectively.
Avoid Ice Dams: For those who have lived in cold parts of the U.S., having ice on the roof of your house or business is an accepted reality. This phenomenon is called an ice dam. As a thaw begins, much of this ice simply gives way and falls to the ground. If you are under the falling ice, it can be painful at best and lethal at worst. The best way to deal with an ice dam is to use a metal rake or shovel to break the ice free and allow it to fall safely. The best way to prevent an ice dam is to insulate your attic and ceiling, to keep warm air from causing the melt and, ultimately, the ice buildup.
Tree Protection: In the right conditions, a tree can be completely covered in ice. While beautiful, it can destroy the tree and potentially harm those near it if the ice begins to fall. The key to protecting trees during an ice storm is to occasionally brave the storm and shake the limbs of the tree to loosen any existing ice buildup. The strength of the storm will dictate how often you work on the tree as safety must always be your first concern. Do not do this if it is too dangerous outside.
Safe Power Supply: Ice on power lines is like watching a stopwatch counting down to power failure at your home. The weight of ice on these lines is often enough to damage them and, at times, tear them loose from their connections. If you see ice building up on power lines, you should contact your utility company. If you should see a power line down, do not approach it. Move away from it and immediately contact the authorities.
Driving Dangers: Black ice is the term given to ice on the road. At times it will look like the road is simply a little wet when in fact it is covered in ice. Take care when driving in cold, wet weather and give yourself the two most important things: time and distance. Do not rush or give your fellow drivers more room than you normally would. Your car should be fitted with the correct tires and chains if needed. This can be the difference between getting home safely and trying to dig your car out of a snowbank you slid into.
AVOID ROADSIDE TRAGEDY
Hitting the road during winter months takes on a sense of seriousness that other seasons don’t carry. Snow and ice present multiple dangers and drivers need to be prepared before they roll out onto the highways and byways. Being prepared with an emergency kit and knowledge can help you avoid a tragedy. A well-thought-out winter vehicle kit includes the following items:
- First-aid kit: A preassembled first-aid kit is a good option. AdventureMedicalKits.com has a variety of kits from which to choose. It is important to keep any prescription medications in there as well. Be aware of the expiration dates and rotate them as needed.
- Extra warm clothes: Pack extra cold-weather gear including boots in the event you need to walk away from your vehicle.
- Emergency rations: MRE-style meals can be a good choice for emergency food. They are easy to store and are a great source for obtaining the needed calories.
- Stay hydrated: Water may seem an odd item to list during snow season, but it is critical. If stuck in a rural area, you may be without help for some time. Experts warn to stay away from eating snow because it will lower your body temperature.
- Shovel: A folding military-style shovel fits well in a trunk and can be an essential tool. If you end up stuck in the snow, a shovel can be crucial in getting you free.
- Flashlight: A well-made reliable flashlight like the SureFire G2 is a must-have during all seasons. The unfortunate fact is that many of our accidents and issues happen in the dark. Without light you are truly stuck.
- Ice-melt pellets: A reasonably sized bag of ice-melt pellets or salt can be a great help when ice has immobilized you. An alternative that also works well is cat litter. These items will allow your tires to once again get a grip and get you moving.
- Tire chains: Many areas around the country require that you have chains on your tires before driving in certain areas. Even if not posted, you should have chains ready for your tires in case the weather turns bad.
- Backup phone charger: This is a common item now and takes up very little space. If you are stranded, the ability to communicate is critical. A dead cell phone battery is not only a problem, it is now avoidable.
5 Winter Driving Keys
As we navigate our way towards our destination, we need to remember to adjust our driving techniques to match the weather. Slick roads and poor visibility demand you adjust or suffer the consequences. Some sage words on winter driving include these foolproof suggestions:
1. Adjust your speed to road conditions. If there is even the slightest chance of ice being present, you should slow down.
2. Give yourself extra room. This applies to stopping as well as the distance you keep between yourself and other vehicles.
3. Be cautious while driving on overpasses and bridges. These areas will ice over long before other areas of the road.
4. Clear your entire windshield. The small 6-by-6-inch porthole you quickly scraped directly in front of the steering wheel will not allow you enough field of view to see dangers. Take the time to scrape it all off.
5. Don’t pass snowplows. For an explanation of why we will look at a statement from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, “Snowplows have wing plow blades that can extend anywhere between 2 and 10 feet beyond the width of the truck. This wing plow blade is often not seen because of the snow cloud being kicked up by the snowplow. These wing plows can often weigh as much as a compact car.”
Stay on the Road
In the event that you spin on the ice, it is important to stay calm and avoid slamming on the brakes. Many cars are fitted with ABS (anti-lock brakes) and they do not work well on ice. They will often lock up on ice regardless of their make or design.
- Maintain Control: If your wheels are locked and sliding, it will be difficult to regain control. Also, turn into the direction of the slide. Do so gently and with control; over-steering will simply start you spinning in the opposite direction. Once you have stopped the slide, make sure you are clear of danger and get back on your way. If you are stuck and unable to move, call for help and get back into your vehicle if it is safe to do so. Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear of snow and run the car sparingly in order to save fuel. An obstructed exhaust pipe can lead to carbon-monoxide buildup inside the car, which can be lethal.
- Safe Exit: In the event that you collide with an object, once again try to stay calm. Wait until any other vehicles have stopped around you before exiting your car. Evaluate the damage and call for help if necessary. If you end up flipped over in your vehicle, orient yourself then slowly release your seatbelt and exit the vehicle. This is a scenario where a seatbelt cutter/window-breaking tool is handy. These devices allow you to safely cut through a seat belt and to break car glass if needed, allowing you to escape.
- Prep to Survive: Lastly, we need to mention that prevention is key. By taking care to winterize your vehicle, you can avoid a majority of the winter frustrations that people have. These include checking your tires for sufficient tread, managing your oil changes to reflect current temperatures, testing your battery and making certain your anti-freeze is at a 50/50 mix to avoid a frozen radiator. Preparation and education are the two words to remember when facing winter roads. Take your time and be extra aware. This will help avoid dangers and get you safely to your destination.
If you live in a snow-prone area, then you should consider improving your home’s ability to fend off the cold. Follow these safeguards to ensure you are completely ready when winter weather strikes.
1. Add extra insulation to your attic.
2. Make sure all of your doors and windows have a good, extra-tight weather seal.
3. Install storm-proof windows for an added layer of insulation and protection.
4. Keep your fireplace in good working order and store plenty of firewood.
5. Have an emergency generator on hand, especially if you live in an area prone to regular heavy snow, for backup power needs.