Does the Wind Chill Factor Really Mean Anything?

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If you love cold winter weather, you have plenty to celebrate in most parts of the U.S. as temperatures dip low and wind chills dip deeper.

But, wait: Some people say that wind chills don’t mean anything. Wrote Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio (where, let’s be honest, it gets cold) last month:

For most people, the wind chill factor serves one purpose: To provide people with ammunition to use when an out-of-state friend — in this case the East Coast — complains about the 2 feet of snow that just fell, or the house that fell into the ocean because of the strong winds. “Oh yeah,” we’ll say, “the wind chill here is minus 70.” It requires us to disrespect the awesome awfulness of 25-below-zero weather in calm winds.

To back up his point, Collins cited Daniel Engber’s analysis in Slate, which exposed the flaws in the calculations. “Rather than trying to patch up wind chill’s inconsistencies, we should just dump it altogether,” Engber wrote.

But not so fast. Collins also mentioned a Q&A by Ethan Trex on Mental Floss, which said:

While the methodology concerning wind chill calculations is still being debated in some quarters, that doesn’t mean that the measurements are altogether useless. Remember, the basic concept behind wind chill is that stronger winds will cause exposed skin to cool more quickly. The faster skin cools, the faster frostbite can set in. As wind chills drop south of minus 50 or so, the onset of frostbite can take as little as five minutes, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the wind chill even if the notion of your skin “feeling like” a certain temperature may be a bit misleading.

So without getting too technical, what should you do to protect yourself? Basically, bundle up to avoid frostbite, even when the wind chill is nowhere close to the 50 below mentioned by Trex. If you can, stay inside, and if you must go out, limit the amount of exposed skin.

Want more? Don’t miss this reader-friendly chart from The Weather Channel that will help you decipher some of the science.

What is your take on wind chill? Do you consider it important or agree it’s best for bragging rights? Tell us your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Tom

    While I look first at actual air temp, I think wind chill can be helpful in deciding exactly which coat/layers would be best at keeping wind out and how much skin I need to cover. We’ve all heard someone say (or said ourselves), “that’s a biting wind.” I also helps me precautions around the house – for example in my 1840s home the pipes are generally safe until the air temp drops below 0 but we’ve had some pipes starting to freeze when air temp is in single digits coupled with high winds that penetrate the small cracks I haven’t yet found. Of course in August with temps in the muggy 90s I want all the “wind chill” I can get!

  • Yak Yak Yak

    Does the wind-chill factor mean anything? Heaven’s sakes! In plenty of places warmer than MN, wind chill is a VITAL consideration when venturing outdoors in the winter. As for “bragging rights,” I expect the loss of a hand or foot to frostbite will quickly curb one’s enthusiasm for bragging. The wind-chill “factor” may be hard to quantify consistently but it is a very real phenomenon. I certainly hope no one will give Mr. Engber’s suggestion that wind-chill estimation be discarded in favor of “looking out the window,” or “sticking a hand outside for a moment,” undue weight. We ignore wind chill at our extreme peril!

  • ponce

    I live in Michigan and there is another aspect of wind chill. Not only will wind more quickly cool exposed skin, it also cools the exterior surface of your house more quickly, resulting in higher heating costs.

  • http://citizenhal.com/ Hal Brown

    I hate the weather forecast with the WCF given as a definitive. Of course the wind makes a huge difference in what we feel as cold. And of course what I feel is going to be different than what someone else feels.
    My house may be better insulated than another house; it won’t cool as fast.
    Better to tell me the actual temperature and the wind speed than this pseudo-science.

  • Wardner Randolph

    Most people like being victims and the nutty windchill calculation suits them fine. The forecasters like it too because they prefer reporting on extremes and records. It should also be noted that the calculation is derived from the highest gusts predicted for that day and not some MUCH lower average. Does anyone think a skier a factors in the windchill prior to starting a 30-50 mph run down a mountain? Of course not. Just tell me the temperature and I will check to see if the branches in the trees are moving. I’ll bring enough clothes to add or remove when I feel the need. Generally speaking, in New England, the unusually cold weather for any particular month is rarely accompanied with high wind speeds. One more thing. Do we need to worry about our dogs when they stick their heads out the window of our cars/trucks when doing 70 mph? Nah, they don’t care about wind chill either.

  • Gars

    In physics class it was called convective cooling. Journalism majors should take a college level physics class so as to not have to ask such questions. Radiant and conduction are the other two methods of energy transfer.