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5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Helps You Prepare for Winter Weather

As Minnesota's Weather Authority, the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Weather Team is helping you prepare for various winter weather events. Read our guide below.

The Twin Cities has seen snow during nearly every month of the year. The snowiest months here in the Twin Cities area are December and January. These two snowiest months will typically yield a foot of snow in a normal winter. Our storms generally move up from the south bringing a combination of loads of Gulf of Mexico moisture and energy. This warm and moist air combines with our cold air and typically brings us our biggest snowstorms. Our area will also get some snow from so-called "Clipper" storms. Clipper storms swing south from Canada and generally can bring a few inches to several inches of a light and fluffy snow the area, followed by very cold Arctic air.

If you are curious about the 10 biggest snowstorms ever recorded here in the Twin Cities (1884-2018), here is a list compiled by the Minnesota State Climatologist:

  • 28.4 inches: Oct. 31 - Nov. 3, 1991
  • 21.1 inches: Nov. 29 - Dec. 1, 1985
  • 20.0 inches: Jan. 22-23, 1982
  • 17.4 inches: Jan. 20-21, 1982
  • 17.1 inches: Dec. 10-11, 2010
  • 16.8 inches: Nov. 11-13, 1940
  • 16.7 inches: March 3-4, 1985
  • 16.7 inches: March 11-14, 1940 (tie)
  • 16.5 inches: Dec. 27-28, 1982
  • 16.0 inches: Jan. 20-21, 1917
  • 16.0 inches: March 8-9, 1999 (tie)
  • A winter storm watch simply means we are watching for potential heavy snow and/or mixed snow and wintry precipitation (snow, sleet and freezing rain).

    A winter storm warning means that heavy snow and/or wintry precipitation (snow, sleet and freezing rain) is imminent and unnecessary travel is not recommended.

    A winter weather advisory is issued for one or more of the following, according to the National Weather Service: Snow of 3 to 5 inches in 12 hours, sleet accumulation up to 1/4 inch, freezing rain in combination with sleet and/or snow, or blowing snow.
    At home, check flashlights and make sure batteries are working. You may wish to purchase a generator in case power is lost during the storm as it may take a few days to get power back to your home, especially in rural areas of the state.
    If you must travel during a winter storm, pack extra clothes (including extra hats and gloves) and a blanket. Also, bring along snacks in case you get stuck in the snow for several hours.
    Preparing for extreme cold is critical for survival in what is often an understated danger during winter. If you are stranded or fall into icy water during extreme cold conditions, your risk for hypothermia increases and can become an absolute medical emergency. Every second to get warm and out of the cold counts.
    The National Weather Service (NWS) issues a wind chill warning when "dangerously cold wind chill values are expected or occurring." Those in areas with a wind chill warning are advised by the NWS to avoid going outside during the coldest parts of the day. If you must go outside, the NWS advises dressing in layers, covering exposed skin, and making sure at least one other person knows your whereabouts.

    The NWS issues a wind chill watch when "dangerously cold wind chill values are possible." Just like with a wind chill warning, the NWS advises adjusting plans to avoid being outside during the coldest parts of the day.

    The NWS issues a wind chill advisory when "seasonably cold wind chill values but not extremely cold values are expected or occurring."
    Inspect your furnace and make sure it is properly working as you don't want a breakdown or carbon monoxide leak during cold weather. It is not uncommon for an older furnace to break down in the cold.

    Addtionally, make sure pipes, especially those in the basement, are not frosting up or freezing to avoid a very expensive water pipe burst.

    Many hardware stores also sell special products to put over windows to prevent cold drafts. It's important to use those products, as other items, such as paper or old blankets, can be a serious fire hazard. Air becomes extremely dry with temperatures below zero and this greatly increases the risk for home fires.

    Keep extra blankets, clothes, gloves, scarfs, hats and nonperishable foods at home to prepare for any issues related to extreme cold.
    Always keep a vehicle's gas tank about half full to full, as a more full tank is not only better for the engine but also offers you more running time if you become stranded.

    Meanwhile, a car battery three years or older should be tested and possibly replaced, as an older car battery will likely fail in temperatures below zero.

    Additionally, make sure you have a cold weather kit in your vehicle. You can find tips on how to prepare a kit below.
    Remember Dec. 28, 2019? That ice storm last year caused 500 car crashes, many injuries, and even two deaths. While ice storms are not as common in Minnesota as much of New England, the Twin Cities does typically have three to four days with freezing rain (not ice storms, but freezing rain) a year (according to 1948-2000 data). I have included a graphic from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center showing the average number of days per year with freezing rain across the continental US between 1948-2000. As snow falls and melts in a warmer layer closer to the surface, it turns back to rain. When the ground is below freezing, this rain can freeze as ice upon reaching the ground. The image below is from the National Weather Service (NWS) showing this process. Sleet accumulations can also make for slippery/icy surfaces.

    Black ice is a glaze (or thin sheet) of ice that forms on surfaces including pavement. The thin nature of these sheets of ice, renders them virtually impossible to spot, particularly when driving. Black ice can form in several ways including rain or snow melt freezing when temperatures fall below freezing, fog in place followed by temperatures falling below freezing, and or from car exhaust condensing on the roadway. Black ice can be more common past sunset, overnight into the early morning hours and in shaded areas on the road or sidewalk. Bridges and overpasses are especially susceptible to ice accumulation and or black ice, as they freeze first.
    An ice storm warning means that ice accumulation of 1/4 of an inch or more is expected on an elevated, horizontal flat surface.

    A freezing rain advisory means that ice accumulation of up to 1/4 of an inch is expected.

    A winter storm watch may be issued ahead of a winter weather event that is expected to include one or more winter weather hazards, which can include ice accumulation (again in combination with other winter weather hazard, or by itself). A winter storm watch is issued when the expected winter weather hazard is predicted to meet or exceed winter storm warning criteria.

    An important thing to keep in mind is that a winter weather advisory can be issued by the NWS given several possible winter weather hazards. Many people are familiar with the fact that winter weather advisories are issued when snowfall totals are expected to stay (typically) between 3-5 inches or less over a 12-hour timespan. However, a winter weather advisory is not always simply snow total-focused. Instead, winter weather advisories can be issued when sleet up to 1/4 of an inch, and/or sleet and freezing rain combines, and/or blowing snow is expected (which can also still coincide with snow totals up to 5 inches in 12 hours, or not).
    One of the best ways to prepare for ice storms and black ice on the roads, is to simply stay up to date with the weather forecast. Some preparations you can take at home to make walking on your driveway or sidewalk safer, is to salt before temperatures fall below freezing. This causes the melt water to dissolve the salt, which lowers the freezing point. When freezing rain or sleet hits the saline solution, it too melts.

    When it comes to ice storm warning preparation, you want to be ready for power outages. Ways to prepare for power outages include having a generator ready (outside), food items available, and warm winter clothing and blankets at the ready.
    It is always safer for drivers to slow down when this type of weather hits. Try to avoid driving on black ice, but if you are stuck in a situation where you have to drive on black ice, do not brake or slam on the brakes. Instead, lift your foot off the accelerator, with the goal of gently sliding over the ice. You can also shift to a lower gear. It is also recommended that you try to "keep the steering wheel straight" (FSUSDA).

    If the car starts to slide in a direction, "make a very gentle turn of the steering wheel in the same direction, because if you struggle against it by steering the opposite direction, you risk skidding or spinning out" (FSUSDA). Look for areas of the road that could provide you with extra traction, and if you do start to skid off the road, try to aim for areas that would involve minimal damage to you, your car and, of course, others. Staying calm is important, and the goal is to get off the road in a black ice situation.
    Snow squalls are short and intense bursts of winter weather, often associated with strong cold fronts. Although snow accumulations might not be significant, the combination of gusting winds, falling temperatures and suddenly-reduced visibility can create dangerous conditions.

    Most snow squall warnings are likely to be issued in areas near the Great Lakes. Warmer water from the lake enhances snowfall and can create intense snow/whiteouts on roads near the lake while a few miles inland, the sun could be out. The amount of snow to fall in a snow squall can be any amount, but the main issue for a snow squall is whiteout visibility. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the most likely areas to see snow squalls will be near Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
    A snow squall warning comes from the National Weather Service (NWS), covering the warned area using a polygon warning similar to how tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings are issued. The duration of a snow squall warning is usually one hour and is issued when intense snowfall is expected, creating white-out conditions over a certain area which can result in deadly vehicle pile-ups on roads and highways.
    The NWS advises remaining alert to the latest forecast and travel conditions during a snow squall. The agency also suggests consider avoiding or delaying travel until the snow squall passes.
    The NWS advises considering avoiding or delaying travel until the snow squall passes your location. If you must travel, the NWS says to make sure you have plenty of time to get to your destination, as visibility and road conditions can change rapidly. Reduce your speed and turn on headlights, the NWS also suggests.
    It is helpful to have an emergency kit with some basic supplies in the event of significant winter weather. Then, you can personalize the kit to your and your family's specific needs. Here are some tips in case an emergency arrives:

  • Blankets - Bring enough for everyone to stay warm
  • Food - At least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Water - One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • Portable charger
  • Local map
  • Heat source (ex. lighter)
  • First aid kit
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Source of communication, such as a phone and radio
  • Personal documents
  • Medication
  • Money
  • Personal hygiene items

  • Maintain your kit to ensure it is up-to-date. Regularly check expiration dates on food and store it in air-tight containers. Make sure to accommodate all family members' needs, including those of pets.

    It's important to have all this in a grab-and-go container. Have this kit located somewhere where the whole family can easily access it. Have one located in the house, at work, and in the car.
    Winter increases the risks on roads. It's important to have the right essentials if anything happens. Below, you can find some important items to have on hand and tips to prepare your vehicle for winter:

    Create winter survival kit for your vehicle with the following:

  • Jumper cables
  • Flares or reflective triangle
  • Ice scraper
  • Car cellphone charger
  • Warm clothes
  • Non-perishable food/snacks
  • Water
  • First aid kit
  • Medication (if needed)

  • It's also necessary to make sure your car is working properly before winter arrives. Make sure to have a mechanic check antifreeze levels, battery and ignition system, brakes, exhaust system, fuel and air filters, heater and defroster, lights and flashing hazard lights, oil, thermostat, windshield wiper equipment and washer fluid level.

    Keep your gas tank full in case of any emergency, have good tires for the winter that work well with snow and ice. Try to avoid flooded areas or areas that have recently flooded as the flood could have weakened roads.

    View other tips here.
    It's easy to remember to bundle up when you head outside in these cold temperatures but are you also making sure your pet is prepared?

    The American Humane Society suggests the following:

  • Keep a pet preparedness kit well-stocked and ready. In the event of a winter storm, pet owners may not be able to leave the home easily to get supplies.
  • Keep pets inside, both during the day and night. If dogs are left outside, they should have a draft-free shelter large enough to stand and turn around in, yet small enough to retain body heat. Use straw or bedding material to insulate the shelter.
  • Avoid overly grooming pets in the winter, so they have extra fur for warmth. Those who have short-haired pet breeds might consider getting them a coat or sweater that covers them from neck to tail and around the abdomen.
  • When walking dogs outside during winter weather, keep them on leash. It's easier for a dog to become lost in winter storm conditions; more dogs are lost during the winter than during any other season, according to the AHS.
  • After going for a walk outside, make sure to wipe a pet's paws, legs and underside to clean off snow and salt.Check paws, ears and tail for frostbite. Frostbitten skin usually appears pale or gray and can be treated by wrapping the area in a dry towel for gradual warming.
  • Avoid allowing your pet to explore lakes and ponds when thin ice is possible. The AHS also advises never trying to rescue a pet that has fallen through the ice - leave that to trained professionals.
  • If working to house-train a puppy, remember puppies are more susceptible to cold than adult dogs and paper training indoors may be a better option.

  • Find even more tips, via the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about pet care during extreme cold here
    These are just a few tips for this winter.

  • Learn more about building an emergency kit here
  • Learn more about car safety and preparation here
  • Find snowstorm tips here
  • According to the National Weather Service, a winter storm watch is issued "when there is the potential for significant and hazardous winter weather within 48 hours." A winter storm watch alert does not necessarily mean that significant and hazardous winter weather will occur, it only means it is possible. Winter storm watches are issued when conditions are favorable for heavy sleet, heavy snow, blowing snow, or a combination of weather.

    According to the National Weather Service, a winter storm warning is issued for a significant winter weather event including snow, ice, sleet or blowing snow or a combination of these hazards. Travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. The NWS typically advises delaying travel plans until conditions improve.
    The NWS issues blizzard watches when there is a potential for falling and/or blowing snow with strong winds and extremely poor visibility. This can lead to whiteout conditions and make travel very dangerous.

    The NWS states blizzard warnings are issued for frequent gusts greater than, or equal to, 35 mph accompanied by falling and/or blowing snow, frequently reducing visibility to less than 1/4 mile for three hours or more. A blizzard warning means severe winter weather conditions are expected or occurring. Falling and blowing snow with strong winds and poor visibilities are likely, leading to whiteout conditions that make travel extremely difficult. The NWS advises against any travel, but if you must travel, have a winter survival kit with you. If you get stranded, stay with your vehicle and wait for help to arrive.
    According to the NWS, wind chill watches are issued when there is the potential for a combination of extremely cold air and strong winds to create dangerously low wind chill values.

    Wind chill warnings, meanwhile, are issued for a combination of very cold air and strong winds that will create dangerously low wind chill values. This level of wind chill will result in frostbite and lead to hypothermia if precautions are not taken. The NWS advises avoiding going outside, and wear warm protective clothing if you must go outside.
    You can find information on other types of winter weather, and their related advisories, here.

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