Does the Wind Chill Factor Really Mean Anything?

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Some think the wind chill, so often mentioned in weather reports, has less to do with reality and more with bragging rights.

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.

Stacy Johnson

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