Cold wave

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A cold wave (known in some regions as a cold snap or cold spell) is a weather phenomenon that is distinguished by a cooling of the air. Specifically, as used by the U.S. National Weather Service, a cold wave is a rapid fall in temperature within a 24-hour period requiring substantially increased protection to agriculture, industry, commerce, and social activities. The precise criteria for a cold wave are the rate at which the temperature falls, and the minimum to which it falls. This minimum temperature is dependent on the geographical region and time of year. [1]


In the United States, a cold spell is defined as the national average high temperature dropping below 20 °F (−7 °C). [2] A cold wave of sufficient magnitude and duration may be classified as a cold air outbreak (CAO). [3] [4]


A cold wave can cause death and injury to livestock and wildlife. Exposure to cold mandates greater caloric intake for all animals, including humans, and if a cold wave is accompanied by heavy and persistent snow, grazing animals may be unable to reach needed food and die of hypothermia or starvation. They often necessitate the purchase of foodstuffs to feed livestock at considerable cost to farmers.

Cold spells are associated with increased mortality rates in populations around the world. [5] Both cold waves and heat waves cause deaths, though different groups of people may be susceptible to different weather events. [6] More deaths occur during a cold wave than in a hot wave, [7] [8] though the mortality rate is higher in undeveloped regions of the world. Globally, more people die during hot weather than cold weather. Extreme winter cold often causes poorly insulated water pipelines and mains to freeze. Even some poorly protected indoor plumbing ruptures as water expands within them, causing much damage to property and costly insurance claims. Demand for electrical power and fuels rises dramatically during such times, even though the generation of electrical power may fail due to the freezing of water necessary for the generation of hydroelectricity. Some metals may become brittle at low temperatures. Motor vehicles may fail when antifreeze fails or motor oil gels, producing a failure of the transportation system. To be sure, such is more likely in places like Siberia and much of Canada that customarily get very cold weather.[ citation needed ]

Fires become even more of a hazard during extreme cold. Water mains may break and water supplies may become unreliable, making firefighting more difficult. The air during a cold wave is typically denser and thus contains more oxygen, so when air that a fire draws in becomes unusually cold it is likely to cause a more intense fire[ citation needed ]. However, snow may stop spreading of fires, especially wildfires.

Winter cold waves that are not considered cold in some areas, but cause temperatures significantly below average for an area, are also destructive. Areas with subtropical climates may recognize unusual cold, perhaps barely freezing, temperatures, as a cold wave. In such places, plant and animal life is less tolerant of such cold as may appear rarely. The same winter temperatures that one associates with the norm for Colorado, Ohio, or Bavaria are catastrophic to winter crops in places like Florida, California, or parts of South America that grow fruit and vegetables in winter.

Cold waves that bring unexpected freezes and frosts during the growing season in mid-latitude zones can kill plants during the early and most vulnerable stages of growth, resulting in crop failure as plants are killed before they can be harvested economically. Such cold waves have caused famines. At times as deadly to plants as drought, cold waves can leave land in danger of later brush and forest fires that consume dead biomass. One extreme was the so-called Year Without a Summer of 1816, one of several years during the 1810s in which numerous crops failed during freakish summer cold snaps after volcanic eruptions that reduced incoming sunlight.

Recent research suggests a possible link between cold waves and extratropical cyclogenesis. [9]


In some places, such as Siberia, extreme cold requires that fuel-powered machinery to be used even part-time must be run continuously. Internal plumbing can be wrapped, and persons can often run water continuously through pipes. Energy conservation, difficult as it is in a cold wave, may require such measures as collecting people (especially the poor and elderly) in communal shelters. Even the homeless may be arrested and taken to shelters, only to be released when the hazard abates. [10] Hospitals can prepare for the admission of victims of frostbite and hypothermia; schools and other public buildings can be converted into shelters.

People can stock up on food, water, and other necessities before a cold wave. Some may even choose to migrate to places of milder climates, at least during the winter. Suitable stocks of forage can be secured before cold waves for livestock, and livestock in vulnerable areas might be shipped from affected areas or even slaughtered. Smudge pots can bring smoke that prevents hard freezes on a farm or grove. Vulnerable crops may be sprayed with water that will paradoxically protect the plants by freezing and absorbing the cold from surrounding air.

Most people can dress appropriately and can even layer their clothing should they need to go outside or should their heating fail. They can also stock candles, matches, flashlights, and portable fuel for cooking and wood for fireplaces or wood stoves, as necessary. However, caution should be taken as the use of charcoal fires for cooking or heating within an enclosed dwelling is extremely dangerous due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Adults must remain aware of the exposure that children and the elderly have to cold.

Historical cold waves

21st-century cold waves (2001–present)


Novosibirsk reached a low of -41 °C. Beijing recorded a low of -19.6 °C which was the coldest since 1966. Seoul also recorded -18.6 °C in January 8 which was the tie record with 2001 and the coldest since 1986. Over 200 cm of snow fell in western Japan along the Japan Sea coast.













The first snowfall began on 17 December 2009, before a respite over the Christmas period. [41] The most severe snowy weather began on 5 January in North West England and west Scotland with temperatures hitting a low of −17.6 °C (0.3 °F) in Greater Manchester, England. [42] The snow spread to Southern England on 6 January and by 7 January the United Kingdom was blanketed in snow, [41] which was captured by NASA's Terra satellite. [43] The thaw came a week later, as temperatures started to increase. [41] The winter weather brought widespread transport disruption, school closures, power failures, the postponement of sporting events and 25 deaths. A low of −22.3 °C (−8.1 °F) was recorded in Altnaharra, Scotland on 8 January 2010. Overall it was the coldest winter since 1978–79, with a mean temperature of 1.5 °C (34.7 °F).






20th-century cold waves (1901–2000)
















1977–1979 winters






















1904 was the coolest year on record. [77]

19th century cold waves (1801–1900)











18th century cold waves (1701–1800)

17th century cold waves (1601–1700)

See also

Related Research Articles

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Oymyakon Selo in Sakha Republic, Russia

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The cold wave of 1978 was a weather event that occurred in the eastern United States. Beginning in December 1977 and lasting until March, it produced one of the coldest winters on record in all states east of the Rockies except Maine.

1987 United Kingdom and Ireland cold wave

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Quetta, Pakistan features a continental semiarid climate with a large variation between summer and winter temperatures. The highest temperature recorded in Quetta was 42 °C (108 °F) on 10 July 1998. The lowest temperature in Quetta is −18.3 °C (−0.9 °F) which was recorded on 8 January 1970.

The winter of 2010–2011 in Europe began with an unusually cold November caused by a cold weather cycle that started in southern Scandinavia and subsequently moved south and west over both Belgium and the Netherlands on 25 November and into the west of Scotland and north east England on 26 November. This was due to a low pressure zone in the Baltics, with a high pressure over Greenland on 24 November.

Winter of 2010–11 in Great Britain and Ireland Severe 2010–2011 winter conditions in the UK and the Republic of Ireland

The winter of 2010–11 was a weather event that brought heavy snowfalls, record low temperatures, travel chaos and school disruption to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. It included the United Kingdom's coldest December since Met Office records began in 1910, with a mean temperature of -1 °C, breaking the previous record of 0.1 °C in December 1981. Also it was the second-coldest December in the narrower Central England Temperature (CET) record series which began in 1659, falling 0.1 °C short of the all-time record set in 1890. Although data has never officially been compiled, December 2010 is thought to be colder than December 1890 over the United Kingdom as a whole, as Scotland was up to 2 °C warmer than England. Hence, it is thought to be the coldest December across the UK as a whole since before 1659.

Early 2012 European cold wave

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Cold wave of January 1977

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2013 extreme weather events

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1994 North American cold wave

The 1994 North American cold wave occurred over the midwestern United States, eastern United States, and southern Canada during January 1994. Two notable cold air events occurred from January 18–19 and from January 21–22. There were 67 minimum temperature records set on January 19. Indiana and Kentucky both set state records on January 19. The United States experienced its coldest temperature month since February 1934, although much of the West experienced mild temperatures. Washington and Idaho experienced the second-warmest January recorded in the previous 100 years.

Early 2014 North American cold wave

The early 2014 North American cold wave was an extreme weather event that extended through the late winter months of the 2013–2014 winter season, and was also part of an unusually cold winter affecting parts of Canada and parts of the north-central and upper eastern United States. The event occurred in early 2014 and was caused by a southward shift of the North Polar Vortex. Record-low temperatures also extended well into March.

November 2014 North American cold wave

The November 2014 North American cold wave was an extreme weather event that occurred across most of Canada and the contiguous United States, including parts of the Western United States up to western California. One of the first events of the winter, the cold wave was caused by the northward movement of an extremely powerful bomb cyclone associated with Typhoon Nuri's remnant, which shifted the jet stream far northward, creating an omega block pattern. This allowed a piece of the polar vortex to advance southward into the Central and Eastern United States, bringing record-cold temperatures to much of the region. In contrast, Alaska experienced above-average temperatures.

2014–15 North American winter Winter season in North America

The 2014–15 North American winter was frigid and prolifically wintry, especially across the eastern half of North America in the months of January–March. The season began early, with many places in North America experiencing their first wintry weather during mid-November. A period of below-average temperatures affected much of the contiguous United States, and several records were broken. An early trace of snowfall was recorded in Arkansas. There were greater accumulations of snow across parts of Oklahoma as well. A quasi-permanent phenomenon referred to as the polar vortex may have been partly responsible for the cold weather. Temperatures in much of the United States dropped 15 to 35 °F below average by November 19 following a southward "dip" of the polar vortex into the eastern two-thirds of the country. The effects of this dip were widespread, bringing about temperatures as low as 28 °F (−2 °C) in Pensacola, Florida. Following a significant snowstorm there, Buffalo, New York received several feet of snow from November 17–21. During the 2014–15 winter season, Boston broke its all-time official seasonal 107.6-inch (2.73-meter) snowfall record from the winter of 1995–96, with a total snowfall record of 108.6 inches (2.76 m) as of March 15, 2015.

January 2017 European cold wave Period of cold weather in Central and Eastern Europe

A period of exceptionally cold and snowy winter weather in January 2017 occurred in Eastern and Central Europe. In some areas, flights and shipping services were suspended, and there was major disruption to power supplies and other essential infrastructure. The weather was the result of stationary high pressure over western Europe, resulting in strong winds circulating from Russia and Scandinavia towards eastern Europe. On 9 January, the Continental Arctic (cA) air mass extended from Germany across the Balkans, resulting in deep snow in Greece and strong bora winds affecting Croatia in particular. In addition, heavy snow in central and Southern Italy was the result of cold air flowing across the warmer Adriatic Sea. At least 61 deaths were attributed to the cold wave.

February 2015 North American cold wave

The February 2015 North American cold wave was an extreme weather event that affected most of Canada and the eastern half of the United States. Following an earlier cold wave in the winter, the period of below-average temperatures contributed to an already unusually cold winter for the Eastern U.S. Several places broke their records for their coldest February on record, while some areas came very close. The cause of the cold wave was due to the polar vortex advancing southward into the eastern parts of the U.S, and even making it as far south as the Southeast, where large snow falls are rare. By the beginning of March, although the pattern did continue for the first week, it abated and retreated near the official end of the winter.

2017–18 North American winter Weather summary

The 2017–18 North American winter saw weather patterns across North America that were very active, erratic, and protracted, especially near the end of the season, resulting in widespread snow and cold across the continent during the winter. Significant events included rare snowfall in the South, an outbreak of frigid temperatures that affected the United States during the final week of 2017 and early weeks of January, and a series of strong nor'easters that affected the Northeastern U.S during the month of March. In addition, flooding also took place during the month of February in the Central United States. Finally the winter came to a conclusion with a powerful storm system that caused a tornado outbreak and blizzard in mid-April. The most intense event, however, was an extremely powerful cyclonic blizzard that impacted the northeastern United States in the first week of 2018. Similar to the previous winter, a La Niña was expected to influence the winter weather across North America.

The Spring 2013 United Kingdom cold spell was a period of unusually cold weather in the United Kingdom between 6 March and early April 2013. The cold spell consisted of very low temperatures and significant snowfall. Freezing temperatures worsened due to the significant overcast and cloud covered skies. Extensive snowfall occurred on 11 and 12 March in the South East, North and West of England and Wales. Most parts of England, north Wales and the Isle of Man also suffered heavy persistent snowfall on 22 and 23 March 2013.


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