January 27, 2019 10:19 am
Updated: January 27, 2019 7:58 pm

Shock and bother: the science behind this cold-weather consequence

WATCH: Static shocks are a sometimes painful fact of winter. We asked scientists at the Manitoba Museum why they happen and how to stop them.


It’s something that happens during the winter, and no matter how you prepare for it, it is a pain.

You climb out of the car and reach to close the door — zap.

You walk across the room and touch a light switch, desk or door knob — zap.

“…especially when its really cold and I’ll notice my daughters hair standing straight up as she gets on the couch or different things,” said Lorilee Peters.

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“…every time I drag my feet on the carpet, every time I touch a light switch, a doorknob — I always get shocked,” Ryan Hunter said.

READ MORE: Cold weather moving back into southern Manitoba with force

Static electricity, more to the point, static shocks, are a side-effect of cold weather. We went to the Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum to find out why it happens, and what you can combat it.

In the same way lightning is produced, mini static electricity shocks are caused by currents jumping from our bodies to another landing spot, using air as the transporter.

It happens all the time, during all seasons, but it is less noticeable during the humid summer months, according to Scott Young at the museum.

“There’s water vapour in the atmosphere and that water vapour makes the air conduct electricity a little bit, and so that static charge that we build up sort of gets bled away over the course of the day doesn’t really build up and it just sort of zaps up in the air without us noticing,” Young said.

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But in the winter, on the prairies where we have a ‘dry cold’, that all changes.

“It gets very very dry… the humidity is very low and so the air is a really good insulator, so that means the charge has nowhere to go,” Young said.

“It can build up all day until you touch a piece of metal or something.”

How to stop the shocks

Young suggests wearing cotton, an electrically-neutral fabric, as well as leather-soled shoes to prevent you from storing up excess static electricity.

He also said keeping a humidifier close by will help your electric current dissipate a little more easily, the way it does in other seasons.

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