Wind chill dropped as low as 52 below zero in parts of the Midwest on Thursday, with similar conditions expected for early Friday. Meanwhile, parts of northern Texas may be hit with a wind chill of between minus-1 and minus-9 degrees—the coldest local weather in 12 years. In this column, first published in 2007 and reprinted last winter, Daniel Engber explains that "wind chill" is little more than shameless puffery.
If the weather makes headlines only when it's horrendous out, wind chill is its PR agent. This week, when temperatures in New York City dropped to single digits, newspapers and TV meteorologists breathlessly reported that the wind chill had hit minus 11. In Ohio, they told us, the thermometers read close to zero, but gusts of cold air made it feel like 25 below. Banner stories proclaimed a wind chill of 35 below in Chicago.
The weathermen trot out these arctic, pumped-down numbers to put an exclamation point on the banality of winter. Wind chill readings make excitement out of mere inconvenience; they imbue a miserable day with the air of epic calamity. A temperature of 5 degrees is unpleasant. A wind chill of 20 below—well, that's something to talk about.
The gaudy negative numbers do more than describe the weather; they try to tell us how we experience it. The reporting of wind chill carries with it a paternalistic impulse to explain not just how cold it is, but how cold we'll feel. Well, I've been out in the cold every day this week, and I know exactly what it's like. If wind chill can tell me only what I've already experienced—my cell phone hand too numb to dial a number, my moustache freezing on my face—then we should just get rid of it altogether.
The weatherman's favorite alarmist statistic has been around for more than 60 years. Its ignoble history began with a pair of Antarctic explorers named Paul Siple and Charles Passel. In 1945, the two men left plastic bottles of water outside in the wind and observed the rate at which they froze. The equation they worked out used the wind speed and air temperature to describe the rate at which the bottles gave off heat, expressed in watts per square meter.
In the 1970s, the Canadian weather service started reporting numbers based on Siple and Passel's work. These three- and four-digit values meant little to the average person, however—the "wind chill factor" might have been 1,200 one day and 1,800 the next. American weathermen took a more pragmatic approach, converting the output from the Siple-Passel equation into the familiar language of temperature—statements like "it's 5 degrees outside, but it feels like 40 below." What exactly did these phrases mean? The meteorologists would figure the rate of heat loss in watts per square meter and then try to match it up to an equivalent rate produced in low-wind conditions. For example, the rate of heat loss in 5-degree weather and 30 mph wind matched up with the one for minus-40-degree weather and very little wind. So, 5 degrees "felt like" 40 below.
As the use of equivalent temperatures spread, people started to notice inconsistencies between real temperatures and their wind chill counterparts. For some reason, a day spent in a minus-40 wind chill was a lot easier to handle than a minus-40-degree day with no wind. Around 2000, two researchers—Randall Osczevski in Canada and Maurice Bluestein in the United States—began looking closely at this problem. Before long, they discovered that the adapted Siple-Passel equations grossly overestimated rates of heat loss.
The two nations' weather services formed a committee to address the problem. By 2001, the Joint Action Group on Temperature Indices had created a new system that toned down wind chill readings across the board. After the recalibration, conditions that were once said to feel like minus 40 now "felt like" minus 19. (Click here for a sidebar that explains how Osczevski and Bluestein came up with their new wind chill table.)