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Chill out: Weather office changes cold warnings

Chill out: Weather office changes cold warningsSmoke pours from the stacks at the Portlands Energy Centre in Toronto on Thursday January 15, 2009. Electrical demand is high as an extreme cold snap has hit much of the country. The federal government is working on a new way to warn Canadians about the need to protect themselves from the dangers of frigid weather.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

EDMONTON - The federal government is working on a new way to warn Canadians about the need to protect themselves from the dangers of frigid weather.

Right now, Environment Canada issues wind chill warnings when cold temperatures and wind speeds combine to exceed health-threatening thresholds, which differ depending on where you live across the country.

Under a program being developed with Health Canada, the weather office would issue an Extreme Cold Warning when temperatures plunge to dangerous levels, even if winds are calm.

"Working outside in the cold air there is still the possibility that you can get frostbite on a nice cold day with light winds," said Blair Morrow, an Environment Canada meteorologist working on the project.

"We just want to provide Canadians with advance warning to take the necessary steps to protect themselves."

Morrow said a brutally cold day in Edmonton in early December illustrates why such a change is needed. This Dec. 6, Environment Canada issued a wind chill warning for an area when the temperature dipped to -30 C and winds hit 19 km/h, producing a face-numbing wind chill of -42 C.

Under the current system, no warning would have been issued had the temperature plunged to -42 C and the winds been light, even though the threat of frostbite or hypothermia would have been just as high.

Morrow said when the new system is introduced, perhaps as early as in 2014, Canadians will no longer see separate wind chill warnings in Environment Canada forecasts or on its website.

Wind chill and cold temperatures will be included together in the Extreme Cold Warnings.

"When the program is implemented, the new Extreme Cold Warning will be issued in situations of cold temperature and light winds to allow Canadians to take necessary steps to protect their health."

The new warning would be linked to information on the Environment Canada website about how people can protect themselves from cold weather.

Environment Canada already provides such basic tips as planning ahead, spending less time outdoors, seeking shelter, dressing warmly in layers, wearing a proper hat and footwear, staying dry, keeping active and avoiding alcohol.

Extreme cold is a killer in Canada and is the biggest cause of weather-related fatalities.

Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said about 100 people die of cold-related causes each year. Many more people suffer from frostbite and less serious frostnip.

This happens despite the fact that detailed weather forecasts and information are more readily available than ever before.

Phillips said one only has to watch motorists drive during the first snowstorm of the season and see how people dress during the first bad cold snap to realize many Canadians forget they live in the second-coldest country in the world after Russia.

"Educating Canadians about the weather could go on forever," Phillips said.

Part of that education will involve the new Extreme Cold Warnings, part of the evolution of the current wind chill warning concept that was developed in 2001.

Over the years, wind chill warnings have been expressed in different ways: the time it would take for exposed flesh to freeze; heat loss in watts per square metre; or how the equivalent cold temperature due to wind speed feels on exposed skin.

For weather forecasters, it's fine tuning the message about the dangers of extreme cold in the hope that more people will pay attention.

"Under certain wind conditions, Canadians are probably tricked into thinking that 'Wow, it is not cold out there', when it is."

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