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How rare is Edmonton’s extreme cold snap? Debunking weather myths

A closer look at how cold it can get in Edmonton
WATCH ABOVE: (From Jan. 15, 2020) Phil Darlington takes a closer look at how cold it can get in Edmonton.

There is no doubt that it is very, very cold in Alberta right now.

In fact, Environment Canada expanded extreme cold warnings across the entire province on Monday afternoon.

Frigid Arctic air has swept across most of Western Canada, delivering bone-chilling cold to much of Saskatchewan, all of Alberta, large sections of Yukon, Northwest Territories and, most uncharacteristically, much of British Columbia.

READ MORE: All of Alberta under extreme cold warning, wind chills of -40 expected all week

On Tuesday morning in Edmonton, temperatures were -34 C with a wind chill of -44.

That is frigid without question. But when it comes to records and data, it’s important to differentiate between the number on the thermostat/thermometer (degrees in Celsius) and what “it feels like” outside (the wind chill).

WATCH (March 10, 2019): Why meteorologists say wind chill’s “feels like” measurement is just a myth

How accurate is wind chill?
How accurate is wind chill?

“There is a big difference between observed temperatures on a thermometer and wind chill,” Global Edmonton chief meteorologist Jesse Beyer said. “When the term is used as seemingly interchangeable, I think this is where a lot of misconceptions start to form.”

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READ MORE: How you can help those at risk during Edmonton's extreme cold snap

It is brutally — dangerously — cold. But is it rare? You may have read headlines claiming Edmonton’s deep freeze will be “record-breaking” or that Edmonton will be the coldest place on earth.

Not true, says Beyer.

READ MORE: What warrants an extreme cold warning in Canada? Depends where you are

“This isn’t the coldest place in the world; it’s not even the coldest place in Canada,” Beyer said, pointing to Mayo Airport in Yukon registering -49 C — without the wind chill.

“It is not record-breaking for Edmonton, with record lows being 10 degrees colder than today in our area,” he said Tuesday.

The cold-weather record for Jan. 14 was set in 1950, Beyer explained.

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This type of cold snap is also not unusual for the region.

For example, the last time Edmonton temperatures dipped below -30 C was less than a year ago, on Feb. 25, 2019. That day was -30.3 C, and temperatures dropped below -30 C four times that month, along with three additional days below -29 C.

WATCH (Feb. 5, 2019): Wind chill is a huge factor when spending time outdoors during cold Prairie winters. But what is it, and how does it affect us?

Extreme cold hazards: wind chill, frostbite and hypothermia
Extreme cold hazards: wind chill, frostbite and hypothermia

“Not to take away from the fact that these are extremely cold and dangerous temperatures, but this isn’t abnormal,” Beyer explained.

“Based on government historical weather data, Edmonton sees an average of three days below -30 C per year based on the 30-year average from 1981 to 2010.”

READ MORE: How to save energy but stay warm during Alberta’s first cold snap of 2020

There is one record Edmonton could potentially break this week, but the previous record only dates back to 1997. If Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings start below -30 C, Edmonton will have recorded four consecutive -30 C days for the first time in 23 years.

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So, if it’s not that uncommon and not incredibly record-breaking, why does this particular cold snap seem especially hard to take?

“I think it’s a bit of a shock to most, mostly because we are coming off the heels of a very mild period to begin our winter season, with a handful of snowfalls and cold temperatures leading to this extreme cold,” Beyer said.

READ MORE: Near-record demand triggers electricity emergency alerts in Alberta Monday night

That doesn’t discount that it is very cold and will remain so for a couple more days. For Edmonton, Beyer is forecasting a high of -28 C on Wednesday and a high of -26 C with snow on Thursday.

The extreme cold warnings are expected to stay in place at least through Wednesday.

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Recognizing the signs of frostbite and hypothermia
Recognizing the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

— With a file from the Canadian Press