Ice, snow and extreme cold events may not be the first things that come to mind when considering severe weather. However, they can be just as deadly as extreme heat.
As with extreme heat, extreme cold has a variable definition depending on the location and acclimatization of the population to those temperatures. For example, people who live in a temperate state such as Florida may find 50 degrees chilly or cold, while those who live in colder states such as Minnesota may find 50 degrees to be comfortable or even warm. People who are unhoused or live in housing not built to withstand cold will face increasingly complex challenges to staying warm. But extreme temperatures are not the only risk; ice and snow can also cause significant damage.
Extreme cold can be deadly, particularly for people experiencing homelessness or who are financially unstable and unable to afford to pay utility bills. This is a particular challenge during times when inflation is high, such as at the end of 2022. European countries saw inflation rates as high as 8.9% – driven mainly by a 4% spike in the cost of energy for heating and cooling. Many Europeans struggled to choose between heat and other priorities as the cold weather set in. An additional challenge is that recent research shows that the metrics used to measure energy poverty may not be accurate. A study in the journal Nature used the temperature at which households began to use heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) as a metric instead of the traditional income-based metric. Using this new metric – which the authors called the “energy equity gap,” they found that over twice as many households were energy insecure as compared to the income-based metric.
Extreme cold also brings with it the possibility of power outages, which can lead to the inability to heat homes safely. This can lead people to resort to unsafe practices such as running a generator, gas stove, or using a barbecue or fire inside their house, which can lead to fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. Cold weather can also cause aging critical infrastructure and systems, such as electrical and water/wastewater systems to fracture and fail. Freezing rain and snowstorms can make road conditions too dangerous to travel, leading to disruptions in transportation and supply lines. Ice gathering on electrical lines can bring down entire swaths of electrical infrastructure, while heavy snow can cause buildings and other infrastructure to collapse from the weight.
The extreme cold events of February 2021 across Texas, and other southern U.S. states, demonstrated the need for urgent attention and investment in preparedness for ice, snow and extreme cold events. Two back-to-back winter storms left power grids in shambles, disrupted natural gas and other essential petrochemical deliveries, fractured water mains, and left all but the most essential services without access to gasoline – disrupting food, pharmaceutical and other critical supply chains.
While winter weather can wreak havoc on critical infrastructure, places where that infrastructure has already been damaged or destroyed are even more vulnerable to the effects of ice, snow and extreme cold. This creates additional problems and increases the challenges associated with disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies. In Ukraine, UNOCHA called for more than $200 million in investments in July 2022 to prepare for winter by investing in supplies that allow for “warm, safe and dignified living conditions” for millions of internally displaced people. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, UNOCHA also identified winterization as an urgent need for those affected by the 2022 floods as the country moved into its winter months with more than 2 million damaged and destroyed homes yet to be repaired.
Both unseasonable and extreme cold spells are caused when a polar vortex moves out of its usual path as a result of climate change. NOAA describes the phenomenon: “The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the Earth’s North and South poles. … Often during winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the polar vortex will become less stable and expand, sending cold Arctic air southward over the United States with the jet stream.”
In the same way that rain storms are becoming more intense, ice storms and snow storms are doing the same. More precipitation is falling in a shorter period of time, leading to conditions that exceed what the current infrastructure was built for.
Researchers and scientists are finding evidence that climate change – in particular the warming of the Arctic Ocean – is destabilizing weather patterns, including both the jet stream and the polar vortex. As a result, the polar vortex is pushed south into areas that are not accustomed or prepared for extreme cold. These cold temperatures, in turn, cause precipitation that would normally fall as rain to fall as ice or snow – a particularly dangerous phenomenon in areas that don’t have sufficient equipment to maintain roads and highways during ice or snow storms.
- More attention needs to be paid to extreme cold preparedness, particularly for traditionally marginalized and excluded groups. While many cities have hot weather emergency plans that include cooling centers, additional operating hours for pools and recreation centers, and other expanded resources, not as many have emergency plans for extreme cold and the expected impacts on critical infrastructure and people with disabilities and functional access needs. Those with cold-weather shelters often don’t have plans for getting those in need to the shelters, particularly when transportation is disrupted. The City of Winnipeg’s Extreme Weather Response Plan is led by End Homelessness Winnipeg and includes shelters that specialize in children and families, youth and teenagers, women in survival sex work, 2SLBGTQ+ people, and an explicit focus on services led by and designed for Indigenous people. Their list of available services clearly identifies organizations that can provide transportation to safe spaces, if needed.
- Climate change is directly responsible for extreme cold events in moderate latitudes. Climate change is causing an increase in both average and extreme temperatures around the world, with the Arctic warming as much as three times faster than the rest of the world. As global temperatures rise, traditional weather patterns, such as the polar vortex, are disrupted. The polar vortex, which has been a known weather phenomenon for several decades, will become weaker and less stable. This means that extremely cold weather can move out of the Arctic, causing unseasonable temperature extremes and setting new records in lower latitudes while higher latitudes such as the Canadian Arctic may see much higher temperatures than usual.
- Some studies have shown that extreme cold is deadlier than extreme heat. A 2021 study in The Lancet of almost 65 million deaths from nine countries found that: “In 2019, the average cold-attributable mortality exceeded heat-attributable mortality in all countries for which data were available.” A 2022 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that between 1969 and 2017 heat-related mortality represented only 0.28% of total mortality, while cold-related mortality represented 8.91% of total mortality in Switzerland.
How to Help
- Look for opportunities to support people with functional access needs or other disabilities, people living in poverty and other at-risk populations. Whether through financial support for warming centers, emergency backup generators, home retrofitting, energy stipends or other supports, these investments will have a larger impact than investments in the general population.
- Fund local initiatives that provide accessible warming centers during cold emergencies. The need for warming centers can be as necessary as the need for cooling centers. While acute medical emergencies related to heat usually take an extended exposure to high temperatures, medical emergencies related to cold can develop relatively quickly, especially when other critical infrastructure and systems such as electricity, natural gas and heating have also been affected by the weather. The provision of warming centers alone is not sufficient; access to those centers is of key importance. People experiencing homelessness, who are living in poverty, or who have disabilities and functional access needs may require additional support in the form of free transportation or other services to be able to access warming centers. Additionally, during times of heavy snowfall, freezing rain or other severe, simultaneous weather events, transportation may be needed for everyone. In the cases when roads are closed, warm outreach services should be provided.
- Support climate change mitigation. There is a direct connection between human-caused climate change and increased occurrences of extreme cold. Specifically, warming temperatures are disrupting the polar vortex and pushing cold air into non-traditional areas. While the polar vortex may be bringing extreme cold temperatures to one part of the world, the rest of the world is experiencing extremely hot weather. While short-term climate change mitigation is not immediately possible, there are projects that mitigate the long-term effects of climate change. Fund reforestation, renewable energy and reduced reliance on carbon-based transportation to help reduce the rate of climate change and hopefully allow for a decrease in extreme cold emergencies in the future.
- Consider unconventional funding opportunities. Some projects that could have an outsized impact on extreme cold and climate change may not qualify for traditional funding. Private philanthropy has opportunities to invest in projects like urban forestry, resilient critical infrastructure and systems, public transit, warming centers, and other projects that may make a significant impact on extreme cold events either by mitigating the effects of climate change or by minimizing the impact from cold weather events.
- Support projects that invest in critical infrastructure and systems. Critical infrastructure and systems – electricity, natural gas and power generation, in particular – are key to ensuring the continued operation of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. These systems are essential to maintaining optimal temperatures during extreme cold, particularly for those who are vulnerable because of age, disability and functional needs, or other conditions.
What Funders Are Doing
CDP provided a number of grants from the Disaster Recovery Fund related to the 2021 winter storms including:
- Victoria County Long Term Recovery Groupreceived $110,000 in April 2021 to provide plumbing supplies & plumbing repair assistance with skilled volunteers or plumbing contractors to homeowners and renters. In addition, they provided water heater replacements.
- Good360 received $125,000 in July 2021 to support the work of nonprofits active in Winter Storm Uri rebuilding. The work includes procurement and distribution of products donated by retailers and manufacturers based on unmet product needs identified through comprehensive case management. Good360 is working with many of our long-term recovery partners to ensure they have access to the goods they need to support recovery.
- Harmony CDC received $75,000 in July 2021 to provide mental health services for those experiencing post-traumatic disorders resulting in compounded trauma from the Texas Winter Storms. Treatment helps clients appropriately share and regulate difficult emotions and helps youth regulate emotions without using substances or unsafe behaviors. Harmony Counseling helps individuals and families cope with the loss and destruction compounded by the storms and teaches healthy coping mechanisms to function.
- Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (OILS) received $136,500 in September 2021 to support the Disaster Legal Navigator project, providing legal services and disaster-related assistance and referrals to Native Americans in Oklahoma in response to the 2021 Winter Storms and other low-attention disasters impacting Oklahomans. This funding was a collaboration between the Disaster Recovery Fund and the Midwest Early Recovery Fund.
Other grants related to extreme cold include:
- In 2021, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action provided a grant of $114,604 to FareShare Cymru to address housing conditions, including tackling cold homes and fuel poverty among low-income, older adults living in their own homes across Wales. This grant recognized that older people living in fuel poverty were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Spending more time in poor housing increases health risks and the need for health and social care.
- The Hancock Whitney Corporation Contributions Program donated a total of $2.5 million to organizations throughout the greater New Orleans area after the 2021 severe winter weather. Recipients include: $500,000 to the City of New Orleans to restore infrastructure and essential services; $200,000 to facilitate storm relief and recovery in underserved communities throughout Southeast Louisiana; $100,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana; $500,000 for additional community support after the initial grant period as well as $750,000 to distribute supplies to employees and $500,000 to their internal associate assistance fund to make emergency grants available to staff.
- The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation gave $190,000 to the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in 2020 to extend the operating season and expand the capacity of the Rochester Community Warming Center.
- The Whitefish Community Foundation gave $2,500 to the Warming Center in Bozeman, Montana in 2020 for the purchase of tents and sleeping bags for homeless residents who were being turned out from shelters that were closing due to COVID-19.
- National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health: Mobilizing Extreme Cold Response Plans for People Experiencing Homelessness (Blog)
- Scientific American: How Extreme Weather Threatens People with Disabilities
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Preparing for a Winter Storm
- American Red Cross: Winter Storm Safety
- FEMA: Winter Storm Playbook
- National Weather Service: Stay Safe in the Extreme Cold
- Government of Canada: Extreme Cold
- CDP Issue Insight: Older Individuals
- CDP Issue Insight: People with Disabilities
- CDP Issue Insight: Climate Change and Extreme Weather Patterns
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