October 2019

    Windchill: It’s colder than it looks outside

    Windchill is a term that describes what the combination of air temperature and wind speed makes the temperature feel like to your skin. In other words, the colder the air temperature and the higher the wind speed, the colder it will feel on your skin, aka the higher the wind chill factor. Which means, if it’s -20 °C and the wind speed is 15 m/s (strong breeze), it feels like -35 °C. And if the temperature remains the same and the wind speed rises, the windchill factor rises and the colder you feel. Basically, the windchill factor is the temperature a person feels because of the wind.

    However, there is more to windchill than one might initially think, and the best way to explore this is to go all the way to Svalbard. In the meantime, you can explore our parka collection here.

    78° North — Longyearbyen, Svalbard

    The world’s northernmost higher education institution, The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), is located at 78° N in Longyearbyen. Here, in the barren landscape of Svalbard, the next generation of Arctic experts are studying and conducting research within arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology. They have chosen career paths that increase in importance by the hour, and they’re forming their future near the epicenter of ongoing climate changes. But their field of study isn’t the only issue they need to take seriously. They must also deal with windchill.

    In fact, windchill is honored with its own chart hanging on a wall at campus. Which should be considered a proper warning sign, considering that UNIS’s brochure Field Safety in Winter, about possible risk scenarios during winter fieldwork, fills 68 pages with a multitude of risks involving, among others, snow scooters, sea ice, glaciers, snow & avalanches (the latter includes sub-categories like wrong attitude, limited time, blue sky, herding instinct and tracker dog mentality), polar bears and windchill.

    Windchill explained

    A prickling sensation spreads slowly from your hands towards the elbows. Your fingers are starting to feel numb. Removing the glove, you observe that the skin on your left hand has a slight bluish-white tint. A few minutes later, the skin on your lower left arm is waxy looking. Feeling a bit panicky, you realize that your joints and muscles have stiffened, making it difficult to maneuver through the rough terrain. Returning will not be as easy as you thought.   

    Getting surprised by the cold is an unpleasant experience. And even if you don’t get a proper frost bite, you might suffer the initial symptoms, like cold skin and a prickling sensation.

    The wind makes it feel colder because it blows the heat we emit away from our bodies. This cooling effect of the wind is something we intuitively understand at a young age, and the windchill factor should therefore be something we take for granted. But that’s not the case. The windchill factor deals with the fact that temperature doesn’t tell the whole story of human comfort outdoors.

    Our heat balance is significantly affected by wind speed. And when touching upon feelings and heat balance, we are moving into fields that are highly subjective and open for individual interpretations. Thus, the windchill factor is, contrary to what one might believe, a somewhat controversial issue.

     The WindChill controversy

    The windchill factor is for real. Still, there exists a windchill controversy out there. Or should we say a windchill conspiracy? Have you heard about the surge of windchill temperature denial? Have you read the tweets demanding that meteorologists posting windchill temperatures instead of actual temperatures should be fired?

    Probably not. But don’t worry. Most people haven’t. And no matter the controversy, it doesn’t contradict the fact that the wind makes it colder outside. The controversy is mostly a question of variables, and some of the critique is aimed at the windchill factor being an oversimplified model, and that the windchill number produced by the equation might not be accurate for you. After all, how cold it might feel at a certain moment at a certain place will vary from person to person. The windchill factor is clouded by uncertainty, because it basically assigns a number to a highly subjective question: What it feels like for you to be outside. Which we can only tell on behalf of ourselves, because no two people feel the cold the same way. Further, very few people can make an educated assessment of whether this

    or this

    is the best formula to measure how cold it actually feels outside.

    The future of windchill

    Still, if we take note of the fact that people are different, that the wind can vary a lot over short distances due to local factors, and that local wind systems can make it difficult to measure the windchill factor precisely, we should appreciate that the windchill factor will continue to be a valuable tool when getting dressed for the outdoors. As they very well know at Svalbard.

    UNIS’s cure against a high windchill factor includes windproof clothing, more layers instead of one thick layer (and make them adjustable), never put on more clothing than just enough to keep you warm when active, and being able to cover your face totally.

    And if you’re not totally convinced, check out the trailer for the Drama/Horror/Thriller Wind Chill from 2007, where a truth is stated: They say that when you freeze to death, it’s just like going to sleep. Point being, no matter what the critics say, you shouldn’t take windchill lightly. And, even if the movie has no connection to reality and is only mentioned here because of its title, the truth of the matter is still: When it’s cold and windy, an insulated parka is a great companion.

    Explore our parka collection here and keep the windchill factor at bay.