BISMARCK - The National Weather Service said North Dakotans will no longer be warned wind chill or the infamous "wind chill index." It's not because icy winds won't cut through clothing in the state this winter, they surely will, but rather because the terminology isn't foreboding enough to do sufficient justice when temperatures plummet dangerously low.
The wind chill index is used to describe what cold feels like, such as minus 25, when coupled with a nasty wind. The effect is bone chilling and life threatening. But what about 30 below zero and calm? Any better? Not according to the professional forecasters.
"The Weather Service doesn't have a product we can issue when it is dangerously cold with no wind," said John Paul Martin, NWS warning coordination meteorologist in Bismarck. "Sometimes the temp and the wind chill are the same, but it still is life-threatening. It is life-threatening and dangerously cold."
Wind chill numbers will not be issued by the National Weather Service in North Dakota this winter. Instead the NWS will issue “danger” warnings when temperatures become life-threatening.
The answer, according to the Weather Service, is to do away with the issuance of wind chill products this winter. Instead, the NWS in the Dakotas and Minnesota will participate in an experiment that will replace wind chills with "extreme cold watches" and "extreme cold warnings."
"I don't think people, especially those folks who are brand new (to the area) and have not been through a North Dakota winter, know the kind of cold we can get here. We are so focused on the wind chill but, hey, it can be downright cold out. It could be 30 below and we're asking what's the wind chill. Wait a minute. Thirty below is deadly," said Martin.
To account for those miserably cold days with minimal wind, the Weather Service will now be issuing "danger warnings."
"If it's 30 below or colder, say over several counties and lasts several hours, we'll issue the danger warning," explained Martin. "We need to highlight that for people."
Another problem for weather forecasters in our region, said Martin, is the term "blizzard" means different things in different areas of the country. For example, blizzard is used rather loosely on the East Coast. Those who have become accustomed to the description of a blizzard in the East may not have the proper respect for a blizzard on the high plains.
"Here, we know the definition of a blizzard has nothing to do with the amount of snow, but the high wind, visibility and temps," said Martin. "A blizzard here is snow or blowing snow, 35 below or more and visibility of less than a quarter-mile for at least three hours. I'm concerned about all the new folks in not-so-permanent housing with winter coming on. They need to prepare and know the definition of a blizzard."
Martin suggests people think about winter survival and consider items like an emergency generator and a supply of fuel to run it in the event of a major storm or power outage. Keeping an adequate supply of food on hand is also prudent during the winter. Dressing lightly while traveling is ill-advised. So too is relying on a cell phone as a connection to help.
"We have to remember that coverage is not in all spots and can be weak, especially during a storm," cautioned Martin.
Additionally, it may be hours before a rescue vehicle may be able to help a stranded motorist. Venturing out in blizzard-like conditions risks the life of the person or persons attempting the rescue, meaning help may not be able to arrive as quickly as a victim would like.
"I'm always worried about everybody, but there's two groups in North Dakota," said Martin "The North Dakotans who think it won't happen to them and the new folks. People need to realize what the conditions can be in North Dakota. We've got man-camps, people in the flood zones in Minot, people who are not in permanent housing. I'm worried about them. If you can't see across the parking lot and it's cold, it is life-threatening."
So, for the winter at hand, the NWS will do away with wind chill warnings and highlight dangerously cold conditions. Those conditions may or may not be due to wind but will be well deserving of the proper respect.
"It's experimental, so we will be looking for feedback," said Martin. "Go to our website."