Why extreme weather stops us cold

Video: While people in Toronto cope with the cold, there is one place in Canada with a wealth of knowledge. Lauren McNabb hits the streets of Winnipeg to get a few tips from the pros.

TORONTO – With the hot phrase — or rather cold phrase — being “polar vortex,” there’s been a lot of talk about the toll extreme cold takes on our cars, trains, streetcars, homes and even our bodies.

VIDEO: What is a polar vortex?

From roads to cars to trains, everything has an upper and lower temperatures limit.

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Rock salt — which is used across the country in an effort to keep the roads from freezing over with snow or rain — is ineffective past -13 C.

READ MORE: Temperatures too cold for salt, making roads slick

However, many parts of the country use a mixture of salt and sand. The sand doesn’t melt the ice, but rather provides better traction for cars.

In Ottawa, the city has begun to consult with the Smart About Salt Council which aims to reduce the amount of salt used during the winter, in an attempt to prevent salt from affecting our environment.


Our homes also face issues in the cold.

When we’re inside with the heat cranked, it’s easy to forget that our homes are working hard to keep things running.

READ MORE: Arctic cold engulfs the country

On Monday, Environment Canada issued a wind chill warning for all of southern Ontario, warning residents that pipes could freeze with the impending cold.

“One could turn on the lowest tap in the house and let it run as a pencil-thin stream or a fast drip while keeping indoor temperatures a little warmer at night,” the warning suggested.

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Pipes that are exposed to the cold freeze. Because water expands, it can cause whatever is containing it — such as exposed metal pipes — to expand and break.

Red Cross Canada gives the added suggestion of opening cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing in order to prevent pipes from expanding.


Canadians love their cars. But cars (and buses and trucks) aren’t made for the frigid -30 C temperature that most of the country has been experiencing lately.

Cars sit stranded by the side of the road on Metis Trail during a winter storm in Calgary on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013. (The Canadian Press). Tim Lee/ Global News

When we turn the key in the ignition, oil pumps throughout the engine block, lubricating all the moving parts. But at cold temperatures, oil becomes thicker, less viscous, and therefore flows with a lot more difficulty. This can result in a car failing to start.

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As people in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta know, having a block heater helps give your car a boost.

Block heaters, which need to be plugged in, warm the coolant in your engine, which then warms the engine block and other lubricants in the car.

Batteries are something else that fall victim to the cold temperatures.

In Manitoba, the cold weather is causing a dramatic increase in calls to the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA): in the month of December, CAA Manitoba served 20,200 members.

“I guarantee that we’ve broken records every single day in the last month,” said CAA Manitoba spokesperson Liz Peters. “Our December was the busiest December in more than a decade.”

So far, in the six days of January, Peters estimates that they’ve already served 6,000 members.

“Because it’s so cold and because it’s been so many cold days in a row, batteries aren’t just cold, they’re frozen solid.”

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Members are facing delays as the cold temperatures make it even more difficult for tow truck operators to work in the cold weather. Oftentimes, they need to take a break to warm up in their trucks.

Public transportation

Though Canadians are used to frigid temperatures, in Toronto, colder-than-normal temperatures are still causing headaches.

On January 3, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was forced to take about 50 of its 248 cars out of service after air lines froze.

“The fleet of streetcars we have is, in most cases, 30 years old,” said Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) spokesperson Brad Ross. “And they use a system of air lines that relies on pneumatics to operate brakes and doors. And those air lines…can generate moisture. While we do have air dryers systems to keep that moisture at bay, those systems are also showing their age.”

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Newer streetcars with a combination of hydraulic and electrical systems to operate brakes and doors will begin to be rolled out in August, which should prevent this from happening in the future.

As for trains above-ground, on Monday morning, Ontario’s commuter train service GO Transit was warning its riders about possible delays due to the weather.

GO Transit president Greg Percy said that in this case it was the snow, not the cold that was the problem.

There is the misconception that in cold weather, train switches freeze, he said, but that’s not the case. It’s the snow or ice that has collected on the bottom of trains that drop into the switches that prevent them from moving.

Instead, cold weather presents a different set of problems: cracks on the tracks. This means that crews need to go out and individually inspect different parts of the track.

“We’ll have way higher instances of visual track inspections and going out and looking at the tracks for obvious signs of degradation of the track integrity,” Percy said on Monday.


Then there’s the matter of the human body.

Stephen Cheung, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics and a professor at the University of Brock’s Kinesiology Department, studies the effects of temperature on our bodies.

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Actual temperature matters much more than wind chill values, he said, as wind chill values are highly subjective: some people may feel the wind chill different than others.

However, in the extreme cold, such as -25 C or -30 C, skin may become prone to frostbite in about five minutes.

“Most of the time frost bite and cold injuries happen to the extremities, so your hands, your feet, your fingers, your nose, or your cheek, and that’s because most of the time those are the areas that are exposed,” said Cheung. “And especially in the hands and feet, there’s a lot of surface area, a lot of skin surface, but very little muscle to generate heat.”

Not only do the hands and feet have a lot of surface area, but our torso becomes a heat hog in cold temperatures, striving to insulate the most important parts of our body, such as the heart and lungs. Blood flow to the extremities is secondary.

VIDEO: Toronto residents bracing for more cold

It’s also important that you don’t wear tight boots or socks, as that can also limit the blood flow to your feet.

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As for the old “70 per cent [or more] of your body heat escapes from your head” story your mother may have told you growing up, that’s not necessarily the case.

“But,” Cheung said, “I wouldn’t go out in this weather without a hat.”

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