Forget the Temperature Outside. It is What the Weather Feels Like That is Most Important

What does it mean when the weather service gives us one winter temperature but says it feels like another? Find out what factors make the cold feel even colder, and how wind chill can really affect your body.

Plus, you’ll learn:

  • The most important information to look at in a winter weather report
  • How the cold affects children differently, as compared to adults.

Launching Into Winter

Driving a car in the early morning hours of a day in winter can make you feel like an astronaut. Dressed in a bulky uniform of coat, gloves and hat, you slide into the drivers seat, strap yourself in and perform your launch sequence. You turn things, push things and adjust things. You glance with dismay at the display, noting that the temperature outside is in the single digits. You wonder how far you will have to drive before the temperature gage rises high enough to turn on the heat.

While you may feel as though you are a metal can of peas that was inadvertently placed in the freezer, things could be worse. Once it does warm up, your little car-space-ship mostly protects you from the outside atmosphere, where conditions are even more inhospitable. There are things out there that can make a chilling 19 degrees feel like negative five, or as some of us like to call it, the moment when the wind finds that little spot of skin just down your neck and instantly turns it to ice.

How a body tolerates a certain temperature depends on a few different factors, such as age and size, how long you stay outside, whether the sun is shining down upon you, the humidity in the air, and the most serious one, the windchill.

How We Get the “Feels”

Check any weather service in the winter, and you’ll see a lot of information about the outside environment, most of which you probably can ignore. The temperature, in big bold number (numbers, if you are lucky that day), is the thing your icy eyeball somehow manages to convey to your brain. That other number, though, the one you probably don’t want to fully comprehend, is the one that may be the most important. The wind chill factor, or what the weather “feels like” is what gets to you.

First a little science. Wearing a warm winter coat and bundling up works so well to keep you warm because of the natural way your body gives off heat, warming the air molecules around you. Wearing layers traps some of that heated air to keep you warm. When the wind blows, it whisks some of those heated air molecules away from your body. This is also why blowing on a cup of hot chocolate takes it from tongue burning hot to pleasantly warm.

Bottom line, the wind can not only make you feel uncomfortable, it can also rob your body of heat and lower your internal temperature.

Wind Chill Factor and The Final Frontier

Wind chill and Warmth

The whole notion of measuring the wind chill factor was started by two men, Charles Passel and Paul Siple, who happened to be working in Antartica in the 1930s. Presumably, since they couldn’t agree on who got to stand outside and turn to ice and who got to take notes and measure the results, the companions filled containers with water and hung them outside of their window. Each day, they would measure the temperature and the wind speed, and observe the rate at which the water froze. This system wasn’t exactly the most precise. Eventually (70 years to be exact), the US, UK and Canada finally got around to devising a new experiment to measuring the windchill factor, and this time they used humans, instead of containers of water.

A dozen people volunteered to bundle up in winter coats and walk on a treadmill that was placed inside a wind tunnel. The subjects walked for 90 minutes at three different temperatures, times three different wind speeds. Body temperature was measured using skin probes and a rectal thermometer. The volunteers remain anonymous to this day.

It is based on these experiments: measuring heat loss, and the effect of wind on skin and body temperature, that give us our more accurate understanding of what the winter environment has the potential to do to us.

Children Are Especially Vulnerable

With their smaller bodies and less muscle mass, children can be especially affected by cold temperatures and windchill. With a wind chill factor of just – 10 degrees, even a well dressed child who is outside for long periods of time is at risk for hyperthermia.

According to, “Hypothermia develops when a child’s temperature falls below normal, due to exposure to colder temperatures. It often happens when a youngster is playing outdoors in extremely cold weather without wearing proper clothing or when clothes get wet. It can occur more quickly in children than in adults.”

Some of the signs of hypothermia include shivering, lethargy and slurred speech. If you suspect a child to be in distress, take the child indoors and call 911 immediately.

Parents and caregivers are urged to dress children in warm layers, which promote pockets of trapped warmed air and help keep the wind out.

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