Experts say the next few months are susceptible to cold snaps

She comes and goes as she pleases. You can’t help but shiver in her presence. Some glare. Others rejoice. This winter, she’s here.

She’s La Niña.

This weather phenomenon involves unusually cold, strong winds from the eastern Pacific ocean off the coast of South America and hot and wet winds from the western Pacific off Indonesia, said Shawn Marshall, professor in the department of geography at the University of Calgary.

La Niña is very irregular, however, with only 12 occurrences since 1950, Marshall said. The phenomenon takes place every two to seven years, with the coldest months typically being March and January.

Marshall noted that only seven of the 11 La Niña events thus far have been colder than normal and when they have been, they are 1.3 C colder on average.

Meanwhile, in terms of snowfall, nine of the 11 La Niña winters have seen more snowfall than normal, receiving 86 centimeters instead of the average 74, he added.

“La Niña tends to mean cold winters, but not every time,” Marshall said. “The cold also tends to kick in late, March, for instance, so this winter may yet turn out to be cold.”

The Calgary Emergency Management Agency, or CEMA, has its own plans in case the city gets bombarded with extreme weather.La Niña can cause cold, harsh weather as late in winter as March.
Photo courtesy of Connor Turner/ Creative Commons

Chris Arthurs, plan leader for the emergency management and agency planning department of CEMA, said that its role in emergency response is centralizing decision making and co-ordinating the response of many organizations working together at the same time.

These organizations could be any of the agency’s 31 members, ranging from the Calgary Emergency Medical Services Foundation, or EMS, and the Calgary Police Service, to various energy suppliers and Environment Canada if a significant weather-related incident occurs, Arthurs said.

“When we know severe weather events are approaching, we begin by sharing an information bulletin with the 31 members to give a heads up that severe weather is on its way. That’s our primary goal,” she said.

However, as there are only so many emergency services to go around in the city, Arthurs said, CEMA encourages people prepare for themselves in the event of extreme weather.

“We definitely try to raise awareness with the public in our city about the types of things that can happen and how to stay resilient themselves, and that’s through our 72-hour kit.”

The kit includes things such as a first-aid materials, water to last for 72 hours for each person in a household, medication, flashlights, cash, batteries, and a radio to be aware of updates throughout an emergency.

EMS tends to see an increase in hypothermia and frostbite-related calls when the temperature drops drastically said Adam Loria, public education officer for Calgary EMS.

But it’s not just in those working outside.

While the cold weather can create picturesque scenes such as this one, it also creates a constant danger of hypothermia.
Photo courtesy of Longo Miquelito/ Creative Commons

“We see hypothermia in people commuting to work, who somehow run into some sort of delay, whether that be at a bus or CTrain stop or detours,” Loria said.

Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 35 C.

Loria said: “Some signs and symptoms of hypothermia would be stumbling, mumbling, fumbling, and confusion. A severe sign would be maybe an altered level of consciousness or unconsciousness itself. So if you see anyone like that or are experiencing that, definitely seek a warm place and medical attention.”

And what’s the best way to mitigate frostbite? Simple. Cover up.

“With the wind chill, skin can definitely freeze within minutes,” Loria said.

According to Environment Canada’s website, the risk of frostbite increases significantly when the wind chill goes below -27 C, freezing both the skin and underlying tissue in as little as 10 to 30 minutes.

“The worst-case scenario can lead to amputation,” Loria said. “So we need to be careful.”

lhallet@cjournal.ca