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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Many Meanings of Cold

Air Date: Week of

Winter in Fairbanks, AK. (Flickr/CC: ozkr)

How cold is it? Well, that depends on which meteorologist you ask. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah asks National Weather Service forecasters about their new extreme cold warning and how they temper that alert across the country.


GELLERMAN: Well, the arctic village of Moriusaq is one of the northern most outposts in the world. It's on the northwest coast of Greenland. Population at last count, two.

And, the temperature there: minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Down right balmy. Here in New England it’s been a warm winter so far but things are getting chilly and I’m about to head out. Hey, Ike, you been outside recently?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Oh, hey, hey Bruce. Yeah, I was just out.

GELLERMAN: Is it cold out?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Yeah, it’s pretty cold out.

GELLERMAN: So, Ike, how cold is it?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Well, Bruce, it’s so cold I just chipped my tooth on soup!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) Ooh, that’s cold!

SRISKANDARAJAH: But, honestly, Bruce, in some places the cold is no laughing matter. I called a guy with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks North Dakota, his official title is warning coordination meteorologist. And, believe it or not, Bruce, his name is Greg Gust.

GUST: Some people wonder how that came to be. I didn’t plan it that way. Just something in the air. As you can see, I went into meteorology and not into comedy.

Greg Gust makes a snowball from a snow bank outside his Grand Forks office in March. (Courtesy Greg Gust)

SRISKANDARAJAH: And that’s good. Warning people of dangerous weather is serious work.

GUST: Yes, that is correct.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And you’re in the business, this time of year, of telling people how cold it is?

GUST: Yes, except this winter, we’ve been incredibly mild so far, so I’m kind of halfway out of a job.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Don’t worry though, nature will keep Gust employed.

NORTH DAKOTA WEATHER FORECASTER: By five PM tomorrow, temperatures drop like a rock , below zero, as we get out off work on Wednesday.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Those frigid temperatures mean hunkering down for most North Dakotans. For the state’s forecasters, it means they get to unwrap a brand new advisory.

NORTH DAKOTA WEATHER FORECASTER: We’ve got a new advisory for this winter. An extreme cold watch from late tonight through Thursday morning. This is going to replace the wind chill watches and wind chill warnings for North Dakota.

GUST: To have a wind chill you typically have to have a wind. And quite often we have cold episodes that come in and they may start with a wind, but eventually the deep Arctic air mass settles in and the wind stops and now its extremely cold.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Hence the name:

GUST: It would be called extreme cold.

SRISKANDARAJAH: This year, seven states are trying out the new extreme cold warning that Alaska pioneered years ago. It takes wind chill out of the title but not out of the equation.

GUST: Typically, to get this you’re going to have temperatures somewhere in the 20 below or colder and some type of wind.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And if there’s no wind on a still, frigid night in North Dakota, temperatures between minus 30 to 35 will trigger the warning. But one meteorologist’s extreme cold, could just be another’s cold.

GUST: For instance, over in my colleague’s office over in Duluth, Minnesota they have a minus 40 for the trigger temperature.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Is that because they are five degrees tougher in Duluth?

GUST: (LAUGHS) It could be, it could be. Extreme cold is in the eye of the beholder.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Ask the question: ‘How cold is it?’ to two different National Weather Service offices and you’ll get different answers. Here’s two TV weather reports taken from the same day. In Fairbanks, Alaska:

ALASKA FORECASTER: It looks like the cold is sticking with us through the night. Forty-six below is our overnight high. They don’t even make graphics that can describe how cold it is outside. So, just the word ‘cold’ will do.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A word that doesn’t often appear on a Miami forecast:

MIAMI FORECATER: Good afternoon South Florida. Gorgeous afternoon for us. This is the type of weather that we love. Well, it’s a warm day today. We’ve got the upper 70s in Miami. Fort Lauderdale: 75.

John Lingaas of the NWS in Fairbanks, AK. (Courtesy John Lingaas)

SRISKANDARAJAH: The diagonal line from Fairbanks to Miami is almost 5,000 miles. John Lingaas at the northern-most Weather Service uses one word to describe the view from his office:

Jeral Estupinan in Miami. (Courtesy of Jeral Estupinan)

LINGAAS: Black! (LAUGHS) It’s still dark here in Fairbanks.

SRISKANDARAJAH: His counterpart, Jeral Estupinan, in Miami chooses another.

ESTUPINAN: During the winter months, it’s a paradise. You have a lot of different types of palm trees, sub tropical trees. There’s a lot of birds that have migrated.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But sometimes a cold front blows through paradise. When it gets in the lower 30s, below freezing, the South Florida Weather Service issues the warmest cold weather warnings in the country.

ESTUPINAN: In Miami Dade county you need a wind chill temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit to open a shelter. Fifty degrees Fahrenheit is probably much higher than any other places.

SRISKANDARAJAH: As for the coldest cold weather advisory, from Alaska, the state that invented extreme cold warning, you need to check three boxes.

LINGAAS: The first criterion is that the air temperature, as recorded near the surface, needs to be minus 50 degree Fahrenheit; the second criterion is colder than minus 35 up to about 10,000 feet; the third criteria is that those conditions have to persist for three or more days.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s when bush pilots stop flying because their hydraulics freeze and fuel turns to slush. So from minus 50 in Fairbanks to 50 in Miami, that’s a 100 degree swing for what Americans call cold. For being on the warm end, Miami meteorologists have to weather some insults.

ESUTPINAN: Yes, they do, they laugh at us. They say we’re weenies. They think we cannot put up with the cold. But then we laugh at them because they could not put up with the humidity.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So, how cold is it? Well it’s soooooo… relative. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



How to prepare for Extreme Cold

Let the National Weather Service know what you think of the new Extreme Cold Warning


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