January 2nd, 2018

“I really can’t stay – Baby it’s cold outside
I’ve got to go away – Baby it’s cold outside
This evening has been – Been hoping that you’d drop in
So very nice – I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”


Being stuck in a polar vortex really stinks. This is especially true for children and their parents suffering from cold- and snow-induced cabin fever. With kids heading back to school after a hopefully happy and warm Christmas vacation, that “fever” has broken, even if the temperature outside hasn’t budged much. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents just how dangerous extreme weather events like cold snaps can be:

Children exposed to extreme cold for too long and without warm, dry, breathable clothing can get frostbite or even life-threatening hypothermia.

Children are more at risk from the cold than adults. Because their bodies are smaller, they lose heat more quickly. Especially if they’re having fun, they may be less likely to come inside when they’re getting too cold.


That last point explains why children are more vulnerable to frostbite (when the skin literally freezes, causing serious tissue damage, especially to fingers, toes, ears, and nose) and hypothermia (a drop in body temperature below normal) when outside temperatures plummet. Adding the effect of wind to low temperatures raises the risk. The chart below from the National Weather Service takes the wind chill into account when considering how long it takes for frostbite to set in. If the temperature and wind speed are known, the wind chill can be calculated.









The AAP offers advice on steps parents can take to protect children from frostbite and hypothermia:

Check the Wind Chill.  In general, playing outside in temperatures or wind chills below -15° Fahrenheit should be avoided. At these temperatures, exposed skin begins to freeze within minutes.
What to Wear. Several thin layers will help keep kids warm and dry. Insulated boots, mittens or gloves, and a hat are essential. Make sure children change out of any wet clothes right away.
Take Breaks. Set reasonable limits on the amount of time spent playing outside to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Make sure kids have a place to go for regular indoor breaks to warm up.


Stay warm!


3 Responses to Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

  1. Is the recent Arctic blast a paradoxical consequence of global warming?

    • Yes, climate models predict these cold Arctic polar vortexes. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing changes in temperature and pressure gradients that drive jet streams. Here’s how:

      “The theory—advanced by Rutgers professor Jennifer Francis and other scientists—is that the rapidly warming Arctic is affecting the jet stream in ways that can contribute to bone-chilling weather in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere:

      To understand how it works, it first helps to think of the jet stream as a river of air that flows from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing with it much of our weather. Its motion—sometimes in a relatively straight path, sometimes in a more loopy one—is driven by a difference in temperatures between the equator and the North Pole. Southern temperatures are of course warmer, and because warm air takes up more space than cold air, this leads to taller columns of air in the atmosphere. “If you were sitting on top of a layer of atmosphere and you were in DC, looking northward, it would be like looking down a hill, because it’s warmer where you are,” explains Francis. The jet stream then flows “downhill,” so to speak, in a northward direction. But it’s also bent by the rotation of the Earth, leading to its continual wavy, eastward motion. As the Arctic rapidly heats up, however, there’s less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles, and the downhill slope in the atmosphere is accordingly less steep.

      That shrinking temperature difference is what wreaks havoc on the jet stream. “When the jet stream gets weaker, it meanders more,” explained Francis in an interview this week. “It wanders north and south and when it gets into one of these wandering and wavy patterns, that’s when we see these pools of cold air pulled southward.” Those pools of cold air are what vast parts of the country are experiencing right now.”

      We’ve always had cold snaps in winter. However, their nature has been changing the last two decades (“polar vortex” is a term used only in the past few years) as air temperatures rise and Arctic sea ice melts (which results in more warming and more melting in a positive feedback loop). The jet stream become weaker and wavier, and the cold snaps become more prolonged as a result.


      Climate change is arguably the most studied physical phenomenon of our natural world. We know a lot of facts about climate change: Experts agree (practically all earth, space, and climate scientists — really smart people — and others with degrees in science, including most physicians); It’s real (not a “hoax”); it’s us (humans extracting and using fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — producing CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases that pollute the air we breathe, trap heat, warm the planet, and change Earth’s climate system); and, it’s bad (and projections are that it is going to get worse in our lifetimes). The good news is, there’s hope (but only if we accept the 4 facts just listed first).

  2. Highly technical from a meteorological standpoint but makes eminent sense. Thanks for explaining this phenomenon!


    Ned Ketyer, M.D.

    Ned Ketyer, M.D.

    Dr. Ketyer has special interests in developmental pediatrics and preventative medicine, specifically how nutrition and the environment affect health. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and his medical degree from Northwestern University Medical School. He completed his residency at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

    As one of the founding physicians of Pediatric Alliance, PC, Dr. Ketyer served as its president from 1997-2004. He has been practicing general pediatrics at Pediatric Alliance since 1990. Dr. Ketyer and his wife have three boys and live in Pittsburgh's South Hills. 

  • Note: The information included in these posts is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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