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Survival / January 17, 2018

How to not die in the next bomb cyclone

Written by: Molly McCowan

When the cinematically-named bomb cyclone (also known as Winter Storm Grayson) hit the northeastern U.S. earlier this month, it wreaked havoc. The storm, which brought with it Category 1 hurricane–force winds, knocked out power for more than 300,000 people and left at least 22 dead.

But what was it, even? To be classified as a “bomb cyclone,” a storm must experience a massive drop in atmospheric pressure: 24 millibars in 24 hours. On meteorologists’ charts this looks like a bomb dropping, hence the name. The lower the pressure, the more intense the storm.

While bomb cyclones usually only make news in coastal areas, they can happen in landlocked regions as well. And they’re actually pretty frequent—anywhere from 40 to 50 of the storms occur around the world every year, but most are out over the open ocean.

This year's bomb cyclone, seen from a satellite on January 4. Image courtesy of NOAA.

According to FEMA, the most common causes of death during a bomb cyclone (or any other severe winter storm) are: car accident, heart attack, frostbite or hypothermia, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

We don’t want any of that to happen to you. Here are our tips for staying alive when the cold gets serious.


1. Don’t work too hard

Yes, shoveling the driveway can kill you. Each year, nearly 100 people die from heart attacks caused by overexertion while shoveling snow. More than 10,000 end up in the E.R.

When shoveling out your driveway or walkway, take the process seriously. Push snow instead of lifting when you can, take frequent breaks, and lift lighter loads. And if you get thirsty, don’t eat snow. That will lower your body temperature.

Whenever possible, push snow instead of lifting it. Your back (and your heart) will thank you. Photo courtesy of Department of Defense.

If (and only if) you’re fit and efficient enough to shovel, consider doing the task for neighbors who are less physically able. It’s not just the neighborly thing to do—it might save their life.


2. Just don’t drive

Newscasters repeat it ad nauseum before and during winter storms: stay home, and don’t drive unless you absolutely have to. There’s a reason for that—900 people die every year in car accidents related to winter road dangers, and tens of thousands are hospitalized.

If you must drive, take some steps to ensure your safety on the road.

  • Only drive a vehicle with winter tires. It’s the tires, not 4WD, that makes a vehicle road-worthy in snow.
  • Don’t drive in your snow boots—change into regular shoes. Drivers in boots often mash down on the wrong pedal.
  • Clear snow from the roof and hood of your car. Chunks of snow and ice can fly off your car and kill or injure others.
  • Drive slowly and cautiously, with your lights and hazards on if visibility is low. Never drive in a full whiteout.
  • Before any drive (of any distance), tell at least one person where you plan to go and when you plan to arrive.
  • If stranded, only run the car for 10 minutes every hour to maintain heat. Attach a piece of cloth or a rag to your antenna to signal rescuers.
  • Before the storm, make sure your car is full of gas and stocked with emergency supplies.

But seriously—if it isn’t a matter of life and death, just stay off the roads until the storm passes.


3. Prep for a power outage

The high winds of bomb cyclones often knock down trees and electric lines, causing power outages that can take days to repair.

In the days leading up to the storm, prepare to live without power. Make sure you have fresh batteries in your flashlights and carbon monoxide detectors, and test our your gas-powered generators or emergency heaters if you have them.

If your power does shut off, close off any unused rooms to consolidate heat. Try to put on a few extra layers before you feel like you really need them.

In a pinch, a few tealights in a coffee can will put off enough heat to warm your hands. As always, use common sense around these open flames.



4. Beware of carbon monoxide

About 430 Americans die every year from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and most of those deaths occur during the colder months.

Carbon monoxide is produced as exhaust by most gas-burning appliances. It’s a biproduct of camping stoves, grills, gas-powered power generators, and some emergency heaters. Basically all the appliances you’ll rely on if the power goes out in a blizzard.

Only use gas-powered appliances in a well-ventilated room, even if their labels say they’re safe for use indoors (our indoor environments are locked up extra tight in cold weather). Make sure you have a working carbon monoxide detecter nearby, and only use emergency heaters in short bursts.

Before the storm, check your home for carbon monoxide detectors, and check their batteries. A new one will cost you about $30 at any home improvement store. Photo by Santeri Viinamäki.

Never use a gas stove as a heat source. Even in a power outage, you are unlikely to freeze to death indoors. But people are killed every year by the carbon monoxide from gas stoves. Photo courtesy of State Farm Insurance.

Carbon monoxide is tasteless and odorless, so without a detector you likely won’t notice it gathering in the air around you. Its poisoning manifests first as headaches and nausea; if you or someone around you experiences these symptoms, get to a well-ventilated area immediately.

If you find yourself trapped in a car during the storm, ensure that the exhaust pipe is clear. Crack a window or door and shut the car off for as long as possible between bursts of heat.


5. Know your HYPOTHERMIA

In winter storms, car wrecks and carbon monoxide are more likely to kill you than the cold. But cold weather totally can kill you, especially if you’re trapped outdoors or in your car.

When a person’s body temperature dips below 95 degrees, they become hypothermic. That’s way beyond regular cold—hypothermia patients are not only shivering but slurring their speech. They often find themselves disoriented and confused, and sometimes suffer temporary memory loss.

Once those symptoms set in, hypothermia can kill fast, and even those who survive often suffer from lifelong kidney, pancreas, and liver problems. If emergency services are available, call 911 immediately for anyone who exhibits the symptoms above.

Next, get them to a warm place and change them into dry clothing. Focus on warming the core of their body first—warming their arms and legs first can push cold blood into the heart and cause heart failure. Wrap them in blankets and give them warm, not hot, beverages (but no alcoholic or caffeinated drinks).

To be ready in case emergency services are unavailable or delayed, brush up on our guides to surviving frostbite and hypothermia.

Did we miss anything? Send your winter storm survival strategies to [email protected] 

about the author

Molly McCowan

Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her love for travel sees her globe-trotting whenever she can, and she seeks out experiences that are off the beaten path so she can immerse herself in new cultures. She speaks fluent Spanish, so she’s almost always planning a trip to somewhere in Latin America. She also lived in Spain for a while, and backpacked across Europe on a shoestring budget. She hikes, camps, goes four-wheeling in her old Jeep Wrangler, and fly fishes in the mountains of Colorado regularly.

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