While it does not affect as many people as its opposite, extreme heat does, extreme cold can be just as deadly, especially in areas that are not accustomed to cold weather.

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.

Many people would associate hypothermia as the threat associated with extreme cold. However, freezing temperatures can also pose challenges for infrastructure, including roads, electrical systems and water systems. It can cause infrastructure failures and hazardous traveling conditions.

Both unseasonable and extreme cold spells are caused a Polar Vortex moves out of its usual path as a result of climate change. NOAA describes the phenomenon as follows: “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.”

Researchers and scientists are finding evidence that climate change – in particular the warming of the Arctic Ocean – is destabilizing historic weather patterns, including both the jet stream and the polar vortex. Unseasonably warm air is pushing into the polar vortex and destabilizing its typical circular pattern. As a result, the polar vortex is pushed down over North America, bringing unusual and historic extreme cold temperatures with it.

Extreme cold can be deadly, particularly for people experiencing homelessness or who are financially unstable and unable to afford to pay utility bills. Extreme cold also brings with it the possibility of power outages, which can also lead to the inability to safely heat homes. Some people have resorted 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.

Key Facts

  • Climate change is directly responsible for the increase in extreme cold. Climate change is causing an increase in both average and extreme temperatures around the world, with a ratio of 1.59 high temperatures records to 1 low temperature records today – compared with 1.09 high temperature records to 1 low temperature records back in the 1950’s. However, as global temperatures rise, traditional weather patterns such as the polar vortext are disrupted. The polar vortex, which has been a known weather phenomenon for several decades, has become weaker and less stable. This means that extremely cold weather can push down out of the Arctic, causing unseasonable temperature extremes and setting new records.
  • Extreme cold is affecting more places than it used to. “Even though the average global temperature is steadily rising, it is still possible to see extremely cold days, though they are becoming increasingly uncommon and the most extreme cold temperatures are becoming very rare. A cold snap that breaks records, while increasingly uncommon, can still occur, as the range of natural variation for local spot temperatures is very large when compared to the length of modern record-keeping. For example, a cold event that qualifies as a once-in-500-year event under the current climate may be colder than any event that was recorded during the prior climate, as modern record keeping often only goes back 100 years (or less) for many locations.” – ClimateSignals.Org
  • Some studies have shown that extreme cold is deadlier than extreme heat. A 2015 study in The Lancet medical journal found that 71% of all deaths analyzed were caused by what the researchers called “non-optimal temperatures”, the vast majority of those – 7.29% were caused by temperatures that were colder than optimal. This same study determined that 4.5% of all deaths in Canada during the study period could be attributed at least in part to cold weather.
  • More attention needs to be paid to extreme cold preparedness. While many cities have hot weather emergency plans that include cooling centers, additional operating hours for pools and recreation centers and other expanded resources, very few cities and jurisdictions have emergency plans for extreme cold and the expected impacts on critical infrastructure and people with disabilities and functional access needs.

How to Help

  • Support climate change mitigation. Several studies have shown that 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, unconventional 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.
  • Fund local initiatives that provide accessible warming centers during cold emergencies. The need for warming centers can be more necessary and urgent than 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 needs may require additional support in the form of free transportation or other services to be able to access warming centers. Other people may need assistance with transportation to warming centers, especially if there is heavy snowfall, freezing rain or other severe weather happening at the same time.
  • Look for opportunities to support people with disabilities and functional access needs and other vulnerable populations. Whether it is through the provision of financial support for warming centers, emergency backup generators or other supports, investments in people with disabilities and functional needs and other vulnerable populations will have a larger impact than investments in the general population.

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