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Extreme cold one day, balmy the next: Alberta’s yo-yoing temperatures a literal headache for many

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s yo-yoing temperatures a literal headache for many'
Alberta’s yo-yoing temperatures a literal headache for many
Rapid temperature swings caused by changing air pressure systems in Alberta don't just present cold exposure risks — they also leave many people with headaches and pains. But why? Sarah Komadina looks into that – Dec 6, 2022

Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.

It’s a common enough phrase during Alberta’s summer storm season, but this winter people across the province are also living through near-daily temperature swings ranging from bitterly cold to balmy and mild.

An extreme cold warning was issued by Environment Canada for Monday and Tuesday, but it will be lifted by Wednesday when the mercury is set to warm up to nearly 0 C.

It’s the second time this month extreme cold warnings have been issued in the province.

Last week, there were two days of -18 to -20 C, followed by a warm-up to single minus-digits on the weekend, before temperatures began to drop again on Monday. Come Wednesday, it could be back up to as mild as -2 C, Environment Canada said.

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Read more: Extremely cold temperatures hit central, northern Alberta: ‘The Arctic has unleashed its fury’

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Natalie Hasell, a warning preparedness meteorologist with the national weather agency, said while these temperature swings are noticeable — they are not out of the ordinary.

“This is not unusual at all. Yes, temperatures are varying hugely compared to what we would consider seasonal — certainly -25 C is really cold and, compared to normal, it’s very different. Minus two, however, is not that far from normal. Your seasonal temperature around this time of year is -4 C for a daytime high,” Hasell said.

“We’ll see a little bit more variability as the week goes on: colder-than-normal conditions kind of settling in starting on Friday,” she said on Tuesday.

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The reason for the swings? Changing high and low-pressure systems.

Hasell said typically with high-pressure systems — which cause those crisp, clear, blue sky winter days Alberta is known for — winds move clockwise, pulling frigid air down from the Arctic.

Conversely, Hasell said low-pressure systems generally come with air that moves counterclockwise, drawing warmer conditions from the south and west of the continent.

“Unfortunately, you’ve kind of been just on the edge of air masses for the last several days — where one day you’re in one air mass, the next day things move and you’re in the other air mass,” Hasell said.

Hasell said meteorologically speaking, it’s not unusual to have a frontal zone — that division between air masses — laying across parts of Alberta at this time of year.

“That part we see quite regularly. Unfortunately, it does mean that from day to day, your weather can be hugely different.”

So how will the rest of December play out?

“We’ll probably see these colder-than-normal or occasionally getting closer to normal — but not deep freeze as you are in now — for the rest of the month, or at least probably until Christmas.”

“These very large swings in temperatures, probably the largest one that we’re going to see is (Tuesday) compared to (Wednesday).”

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Click to play video: 'Edmonton weather forecast: Tuesday, December 6, 2022'
Edmonton weather forecast: Tuesday, December 6, 2022

I can feel it in my bones: How the cold can impact your health

For some Albertans, the yo-yoing weather means being prepared by plugging in their vehicles and planning their transit trips a little more carefully to avoid long waits in the cold.

But for others, the weather can bring with it a range of aches, pains and in some cases, debilitating headaches.

Emergency and preventative medicine physician Dr. Louis Francescutti said there’s enough scientific evidence accumulated over the years to back up the connection.

“You’ve probably heard your grandparents say, ‘I can tell when a storm is coming because my joints are going to hurt,’ and there’s some truth to that.”

Conditions such as migraines, headaches, joint pains, and even blood pressure can be affected by high and low pressure systems, Francescutti said.

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“The studies that were done actually measured people’s symptoms and then they compared them to readings of barometric pressure where the patients resided and they saw that there was a correlation.

“I think there is some truth when people say, ‘Oh, when it gets colder, I can feel it in my bones and my bones are going to ache.'”

Click to play video: 'Too cold for an outdoor workout? How to exercise indoors'
Too cold for an outdoor workout? How to exercise indoors

Francescutti said the medical theory is that changes in barometric pressure cause joints to expand within their closed compartment, putting pressure on the nerve endings and in turn, causing pain.

“It’s going to change the composition of the tension and the fluidity within the joints.”

The veteran Alberta physician said some ways to mitigate the impact include being well-hydrated, rested, exercising regularly and eating properly.

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“If it’s a case of a patient with migraine, make sure you have your medication. And if you need to take the medication prophylactically, then you can do that,” he said.

“Try and stay warmer. So either stay indoors or make sure you’re dressed up appropriately,” Francescutti said.

Wind chill & frostbite concerns

Environment Canada issues extreme cold warnings when very cold temperatures or wind chill create an elevated risk to health such as frostbite, hypothermia, heart attacks and cardiac arrest.

“We issue these warnings because there’s a hazard and people could suffer quite significantly,” Hasell said.

There are different criteria for what constitutes an emergency cold in each part of the country, the meteorologist said.

“We issue the extreme cold warnings in Alberta for temperatures or wind chills at -40 and it’s -40 for the entire province — which is different than a number of other places, not only in the country, but in the Prairies.”

Read more: What warrants an extreme cold warning in Canada? Depends where you are

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When the wind chill approaches -40 or lower, Hasell said frostbite can set in on exposed skin in as little as five to 10 minutes.

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“Yeah, -40 to -47 is considered a very high risk — exposed skin can freeze in five to 10 minutes.

If it’s too cold for you to stay outside, it’s too cold for your pet to stay outside, Environment Canada said.

Click to play video: 'Recognizing the signs of frostbite and hypothermia'
Recognizing the signs of frostbite and hypothermia

Risks are greater for young children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, people working or exercising outdoors and those without proper shelter.

Medical conditions like diabetes, nerve damage or issues with circulation can make people less likely to notice of they are suffering from the cold, Hasell said.

“Some medications, too, might make you more susceptible to the cold,” she said.

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“So talk to your doctor, talk to your pharmacist, get that information and find out if you should change your plans based on that — more so than perhaps a member of the general public who might not be dealing with those medical situations.”

When going outside, people are advised to wear layers and protect exposed skin with gloves, a toque and a scarf.  Boots should be waterproof, and it’s recommended people wear two or three layers of pants and shirts.

Also, keep moving when you’re outside in -30 C.

“If you are waiting for that bus, don’t just stand there. At least pace around a little bit. Keep or help your body to generate some heat,” Hasell said.

Stay warm, Alberta — spring is many, many months away.

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