Be prepared for winter weather
Winter weather conditions in Canada can quickly become dangerous with little or no warning. Winter storms and excessive cold claim over 100 lives each year in this country. That is more than the combined number of deaths caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, extreme heat and lightning each year.
Environment and Climate Change Canada issues a variety of severe winter weather alerts to notify the public about hazardous winter conditions. Protect yourself and your family by learning more about the different kinds of winter hazards you might encounter and how to plan for possible emergencies.
Severe winter weather alerts
Spending time outdoors in the winter season is good for your health, and can be a lot of fun. But you need to be aware and prepared for Canada’s cold and severe winter weather. In an average year, more Canadians die from exposure to winter cold than from lightning, windstorms and tornadoes combined.
When severe winter weather threatens, Environment and Climate Change Canada issues special alerts that notify Canadians in affected areas. These alerts allow them to protect themselves and their property from harm. The Weatheradio service and the Government of Canada’s weather website issue these weather alert bulletins.
Canada has one of the most severe winter climates of any country in the world. We experience a wide variety of dangerous weather conditions including extreme cold, blizzards, and ice storms. Even conditions more typical of the warmer months such as heavy rain and lightning are possible in winter.
Anyone who has ever waited at a bus stop or taken a walk on a windy winter day knows that you feel colder when the wind blows. This cooling sensation, caused by the combined effect of temperature and wind, is called wind chill. The best way to avoid the impact of wind chill is to check the weather forecast before going outside, and to be prepared by dressing warmly.
It is not only current weather conditions that can have serious consequences. It is also the rapid transitions between weather types or the long durations of any one type. Being prepared for the cold, snow and ice is one thing. But are you ready for when the weather changes in the blink of an eye? Or when nasty conditions seem to go on forever?
This is why it is important to be aware of the various weather alerts available from Environment and Climate Change Canada. These alerts are issued to help you make informed decisions.
Four types of weather alerts
The type of alert used depends on the severity and timing of the event:
- Urgent message that severe weather is either occurring or will occur
- Updated regularly so that you can stay informed and take appropriate action
- Alerts you about weather conditions where there is potential for a significant storm or severe weather to occur
- A Watch may upgrade to a Warning as certainty increases about the path and strength of a storm system
- Issued for specific weather events (like blowing snow, fog, freezing drizzle and frost) that are less severe, but could still significantly affect Canadians
- Special Weather Statement
- The least urgent type of alert
- Issued to let you know that conditions are unusual and could cause concern
- They provide notice of what weather may be coming
Different weather patterns can bring different types of threats or hazards to solicit the above types of alerts. Environment and Climate Change Canada issues over 20 different types of alerts for the various weather hazards that occur across the country.
Fall and winter weather alerts
Winter alerts are generally defined as precipitation events (snow, freezing rain, etc.), extreme cold and wind chill, and reduced visibility. Any of the three threats can arrive either alone or together. They are listed as precipitation, cold, and poor visibility alerts.
Precipitation alerts include:
- Snowfall: significant snowfall
- Snow squall: when cold air moves across larger open bodies of water (such as the Great Lakes), creating nearly stationary bands of cloud and snow
- Freezing rain / Freezing drizzle: when rain or drizzle falls onto sub-zero surfaces and freezes on contact, forming a layer of ice
- Rainfall: significant rainfall
- Winter storm: issued when multiple types of severe winter weather are expected to occur together
Cold alerts include:
- Arctic outflow: any combination of wind speed and temperature giving a wind chill of -20 or lower for 6 hours or more
- Coastal British Columbia regions only; a separate Wind Warning is not required
- Extreme cold: extremely cold temperatures or very low wind chill values
- Flash freeze: issued when a rapid drop in temperature causes water from rain or melted snow on streets, sidewalks etc., to quickly freeze
Poor Visibility alerts include:
- Blizzard: issued when winds are expected to create blowing snow, giving widespread reduced visibility of 400 metres or less
- Blowing snow: issued when winds are expected to create blowing snow, giving poor visibility of 800 metres or less
There is also a rarely-issued generic alert simply called a “Weather” warning or advisory. These alerts may be issued for weather events with no suitable warning type, because they rarely occur.
General winter weather safety
Winter driving calls for extra care, even in normal winter conditions. Snow and ice can reduce tire traction on roads, and heavy or blowing snow can make visibility poor.
Whether you are shoveling or skiing, always dress warmly in cold temperatures and avoid over-exerting yourself. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your blood vessels when they are constricted by the cold. Over-exerting with the added stress could trigger a heart attack or stroke. Be heart smart in the winter
When a blizzard begins, stay indoors and wait until it ends. If you must go outside, dress properly to stay warm. Tie one end of a long rope to your door and hold onto the other end to avoid getting lost in the blinding snow. When it comes time to shovel yourself out after the storm, take your time to avoid exerting yourself.
Having a storm readiness plan in place saves valuable time when severe weather strikes. It is also important to maintain an emergency pack with a battery-powered flashlight, a radio, tools for emergency repair, ready-to-eat food, a first aid kit, blankets, and extra clothing. Keep your car gas tank full in case gas stations close down after a storm, and have some cash on hand in case bank machines and electronic payment methods are down. When a warning is issued, stay calm and follow your plan. In winter, be sure to stock up on heating fuel. Take advantage of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Weatheradio service to be aware of and prepared for potential impending winter storms.
Dress warmly when you go outside during cold weather. Wear layers of clothing with a wind-resistant outer layer. You can remove layers if you get too warm, before you start sweating, or add a layer if you get cold. Wear warm socks, mittens, a hat and scarf. In extremely cold conditions, cover as much exposed skin as possible. If you get wet, change into dry clothing. You lose heat faster when you are wet.
Outdoor sports, such as skiing, snowmobiling and skating can be fun in the wintertime, but be sure to dress appropriately. Wear a facemask or goggles to protect your face from frostbite and windburn.
Be alert for signs of frostbite. Check for numbness or white areas on your face and extremities (ears, nose, cheeks, hands and feet). Get medical assistance immediately if you notice signs of confusion, slurred speech, stiff muscles or uncontrollable shivering. These are signs of hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition. Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can generate it.
Check the Environment and Climate Change Canada weather forecast before you go outside. Watch for wind chill or extremely cold temperatures. Wind chill can create dangerously cold conditions, but extremely cold temperatures can still be hazardous with little or no wind.
Storm surge safety
In the event of a storm surge, avoid coastal areas, particularly those prone to flooding, and seek higher ground.
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