Wind Chill Wisdom from the Mount Washington Observatory Staff
Wind chill–is there another weather term that is gushed about more yet understood less? How many times has a friend told you a story about a particularly cold day and said something like: “Yeah, it was 12 degrees at the summit, but with the wind chill it must have been like… -40!
As temperatures throughout the northeast dip into the teens for the first time this fall, now seems like a good time to get the facts on wind chill factor from the men and women who understand it better than anyone–the observers at the Mount Washington Observatory, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”
In the matter of fact words of Weather Observer/Education Specialist Kaitlyn O’Brien:
“Everyone loves to talk about wind chill, but the truth is that wind chill is just a calculation of what the air temperature could feel like on unprotected skin; it’s not an actual measurement that we observe. If you are properly outfitted for the elements head to toe in EMS gear, you don’t even have to worry about the wind chill.”
Full disclosure, Eastern Mountain Sports is the official outfitter of the Mount Washington Observatory but we did not ask Kaitlin to plug our gear (but we’ll take it!). What we DID ask for are facts and Mike Carmon came through with some good ones:
“Winds act to transport heat away from exposed human skin, and the windier and colder it is, the quicker heat is removed from the human body. When you’re served a dish of overwhelmingly hot food, what’s the first thing you do? Blow on it to cool it down, which is essentially creating wind with your breath to remove heat from the food. Wind chill is a method to empirically measure that very same effect on the human body when exposed to a combination of high winds and cold temperatures. The key here, though, is that exposed human flesh is what’s seriously at risk. If the harsh winds have no direct contact with your skin, they are not able to extract body heat, and the risk of frostbite will be drastically mitigated. However, if even the slightest bit of skin is left unprotected, heat can be removed so rapidly that frostbite can begin to develop on exposed skin in less than 5 minutes when temperatures are below zero and winds are howling near hurricane force.”
The moral of the story is that when it comes to neutralizing the dangerous combination of powerful winds and frigid temperatures, the simple rule is:
LEAVE NO SKIN EXPOSED
As you can see in the photo above, the MWOBS crew takes their own advice seriously. The distance from the snowcat parking area to the observatory door is less than 10 yards but before stepping foot outside, the crew layers up from head to toe taking care not to leave a single inch of skin exposed to the elements.
When they begin their 7-day shift at the observatory, they repeat this process every hour as they leave the protection of the observatory to manually check and maintain the various weather recording instruments at the summit.
Whether you’re venturing to the summit of Mount Washington in winter or you’re standing at the bus stop on a frigid morning, the same principles of wind protection apply. We have lots of different options for covering up your skin, blocking the wind and maintaining your body temperature. CLICK HERE to see what gear the Mount Washington Observatory staff are wearing this winter and if you’re thinking about taking on the ultimate winter challenge, CLICK HERE to check out our Climb School Guide gear list.