Changing Seasons, Changing Hazards: Cold-Season Hassles in the Region

Cold Weather
Posted at 9:37 AM, Jun 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-02 09:37:00-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) -- One element of north Florida and south Georgia life is the ability to encounter the weather changes associated with all four seasons. Unlike people in the peninsula of Florida, the weather differences between summer and winter are sharply distinct. While the colder air masses can create a higher level of comfort and delight for the region, occasional strong blasts of Arctic air can plunge the area into a hard freeze, and, less often, set up a wintry challenge with frozen precipitation.

During the coldest part of the winter season in January, the average low for Tallahassee is 39°. That's only seven degrees above the freezing point. The region averages 28 nights of sub-freezing low temperatures in the last five years. As the temperature dives lower, more impacts and dangers arise.

Frost typically forms at night when the sky is clear, the wind is light to calm, and air temperatures dip into the 30s for several hours. If enough moisture is present, as the temperatures falls to the dew point, dew would form. But even though observed air temperatures may be above freezing, the reading right at ground level may be a few degrees colder, and the dew would instead become frost.

A frost advisory would be issued by the National Weather Service, usually for the initial frost event of the cold season, to alert people about the hazards frost would cause to tender vegetation.

A freeze warning is issued in advance of a widespread freeze event. Temperatures between 27° and 32° for at least two hours would be enough to harm or kill susceptible plant life and cause discomfort to humans and domesticated animals.

A hard freeze occurs when temperatures fall to 26° or below for at least two hours. Longer durations of freezing temperatures can create greater harm to those exposed to the extreme cold. Hypothermia (a dangerous trend of falling body temperatures because of loss of heat) can occur in a shorter amount of time. Prolonged hard freeze conditions can cause water settled in piping systems to freeze, expanding inside the pipe and causing bursts and system failures.

Marginally cold temperatures coupled with breezy winds trigger lower "feels-like" temperatures, commonly called the wind chill factor. The faster wind speed creates a more rapid release of heat from exposed skin, making the air feel colder than it really is. This process can accelerate the rate at which hypothermia begins.

In extreme cases, storm systems, moisture, and very cold air combine to produce wintry precipitation, either in the forms of ice pellets, sleet, freezing rain, or snow. Criteria for winter weather advisories and winter storm warnings require only a minimal amount of these features for alerts to be issued. Higher accumulations of wintry precipitation can make local travel treacherous, since most long-term residents of the area have limited experience in winter weather driving.

While our region escapes the full brunt of brutal winter weather, we still get our fair share. It helps to know how to handle hazardous winter weather when it affects our area.