Over the past couple of days the state of Wisconsin, including the greater Lakeland area, have been experiencing the coldest blast of winter in many years – one has to go back to the mid-1990s for the most recent cold weather outbreak that was anywhere close to what we have recently seen.
You couldn’t get away from the effects.
The Lac du Flambeau and North Lakeland schools got ahead of the curve last Friday by announcing before the weekend that classes were cancelled for Monday. The other remaining schools, MHLT, LUHS, AV-W, and Trinity Lutheran, waited until Sunday to make the call to cancel Monday.
Not to be outdone by Monday's cancellations, school officials also decided by mid-day Monday that classes for Tuesday, Jan. 7, would be canceled.
Other government meetings, and community events across the area were cancelled or postponed as well.
Pets were affected, roads and road conditions were affected, Water wells and septics could still be affected, and even those who live constantly with the cold – the wildlife in the Northwoods – have been affected.
So, just how bad was it?
The conditions that hit the area are not completely out of the ordinary, according to National Weather Service (NWS) officials, but it has been a while since we’ve had a stretch of cold air like this.
Here’s how an official with the NWS out of Green Bay described the arctic blast.
Roy Eckberj, a meteorologist with the NWS in Green Bay recalled one particularly brutal cold snap nearly two decades ago.
Speaking to The Lakeland Times, here is what he said: “When we get to Monday, it’s going to be very comparable to the February 1996 outbreak, because highs on Monday [were] anywhere from 10 to 20 below zero. We’re going back to 1996 for the last time that we had this severe of an Arctic outbreak,” Eckberj said.
Just two seasons prior to the 1996 blast, the Northwoods saw a similar taste of cold.
“There was another one in January, 1994 and there’s many back in the early years,” Eckberj said.
Referencing data for Rhinelander, Eckberj said the years 1936, 1951, and 1982 stand out as years with similar arctic strongholds. There was an impressive cold stretch more than a century ago.
“I think January 1912 was the longest. It covered most of the month,” Eckberj said.
“It looks like in Rhinelander it went below zero on the second of January, back in 1912, and it didn’t get above zero again until the 13th.”
That probably ranks as the longest below-zero stretch for this area of the state since records were kept, Eckberj indicated.
He also discussed why the cold air was projected to stick around through the middle of this week.
“There’s a big ridge of high pressure acrosss the western United States and that’s allowing warm air to flow up into Alaska and we’re on the back side of that ridge, so all the air out of Canada is pulling southward into the northern U.S.,” he explained.
“It has been persistent since ... mid-December. There’s been a couple of rounds of cold weather.”
It should ease up by tomorrow, Wednesday and it doesn’t look like we’re in for a stretch quite like the north saw 101 years ago.
“Once we get beyond Wednesday, it looks like we could warm back into teens, around 20, Thursday, and there’s some indication that we could warm well into the 20s to around 30 by Friday,” Eckberj said.
“Usually, when you get a severe Arctic outbreak, you tend to get a mild stretch behind it. That’s not uncommon for that to happen. Looks like we could be in the 30s the following weekend – probably feel kind of balmy.”
As always, with cold or snow conditions, one of the first questions asked is whether schools will be closed.
The majority of area school officials waited until Sunday, Jan. 5, to make the call to close Monday, Jan. 6, but it wasn't long into Monday that the call was made again to cancel classes for Tuesday, Jan. 7.
With temperatures expected to bottom out on Sunday and continue into Wednesday, area school officials considered, first and foremost, the safety of the students, and make their decisions on whether it is safe for them make the trip to school.
Lakeland Union High School Principal Jim Bouché said the decision-making process on whether to cancel school due to cold temperatures has varied at each of the schools where he has been employed.
“I think this topic has been struggled with for many years,” Bouché said. “Some districts have identified a temperature that when it gets to that temperature, school will be called.”
Bouché pointed to a year in the early 1990s when he was in Wausau, and the school had set 75 degrees below zero (with wind chill) as the threshold to call school.
“I think it was brought upward, 35 or 30 degrees below zero gets to be very dangerous,” Bouché said.
While Lakeland has no temperature set in stone as a threshold to determine the cancellation of school, Bouché said most area schools have a similar approach when deciding whether to make the call due to extreme cold.
“We all basically deal with it similarly,” Bouché said. “There is no policy for when you close school due to cold, but there is a feel.”
Bouché said this “feel” comes from two factors.
“First of all, are students at danger? Second of all, are buses capable of running? Those types of questions are asked of ourselves and of administrators all the time.”
Bouché said that the obvious factor is the safety of the students, and whether they will be in danger from the cold when they are waiting to be picked up by the bus.
While student safety is the main factor, the bus company also comes into play, and if it is too cold for the buses to safely run, school will also be canceled.
Bouché said the decision is made after dialogue between the school district and bus company.
“The people who will normally make the decision on this is the superintendents, they spend a lot of time talking with one another, and they spend a lot of time talking with the bus companies,” Bouché said.
If the decision is made to cancel school, all athletics and activities are also cancelled for the day. Over winter break, during a spell of extremely cold days, the decision was made by Bouché and activities director Don Scharbarth to make all practices optional, so students who didn’t feel safe traveling in the cold could stay home if they wished.
“A lot of conversation takes place,” Bouché reiterated.
With the extremely cold weather conditions that hit the area Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Bouché said the school administrators would be watching the weather closely.
“Weather people seem to be pretty well-versed when predicting what the temperature is going to be,” Bouché said. “What we’re looking at now, the prediction for Monday and Tuesday is going to be extremely cold.”
When school is canceled, Lakeland’s website, luhs.k12.wi.us, is updated, and voice and email alerts are sent to all families.
Bottom line, the decision to cancel school based on the cold comes down to those two main factors.
“The first thing is always the safety of the students, and then it’s about if the equipment can make it or not,” Bouché said.
Meals on Wheels
Severe winter weather, including dangerous cold, also has an impact on the delivery of hot meals to senior citizens in Vilas County through the Meals on Wheels program.
According to Vilas County Commission on Aging director Sue Richmond, their policy is to not deliver meals on wheels when schools are closed due to the severe weather, but during school break times, commission officials have to make a decision based on other factors.
“When it’s this cold we really don’t feel comfortable having our volunteers going out and delivering the hot meals,” Richmond said. “We’re very afraid that if their vehicles broke down they could be stuck somewhere in the cold. But some of them are so conscientious and are so into their work that they still deliver the meals because they know how much some of our elderly depend on getting these meals.”
Richmond said during severe weather, such as severe cold spells, they encourage area seniors to stay in their home as much as possible.
“If they don’t have to leave their home, don’t, we’re telling them,” Richmond said.
Richmond said the commission is discussing a policy with how to deal with the severe weather situations when schools are closed due to a vacation break.
Area law enforcement departments are encouraging drivers that if they must travel to make sure they have proper emergency equipment and extra clothing and blankets in their vehicle so they can stay warm until help arrives.
Road, highway conditions
Butch Welch, Minocqua’s Department of Public Works director, said once the outside temperature drops to 20 or lower placing salt on town roads and highways does little good.
“When the temperatures are that cold the salt just doesn’t work,” Welch said. “That’s when the county might switch to a sand mix with about 7 percent salt. That amount of salt is put in there just to keep the sand from freezing. Otherwise if you put salt on the road when it’s that cold it will just blow off or to the side of the road without doing you any good.”
Welch acknowledged motorists will see slippery roads until temperatures warm up enough for the salt to be able to work and have a positive effect.
Clearing roads before chill
Road conditions early this week were dependent on what Oneida County Highway Commissioner Freeman Bennett called a “very short window of opportunity.”
After a snowfall on Saturday, Bennett the department had a brief period of time to clear roads before any remaining precipitation freezes hard.
That’s because road salt does not work in extreme cold, he said.
To keep salt on the road, the department mixes a chemical concoction of magnesium chloride and beet juice with salt, and then sprays the salt with sodium chloride, according to Bennett.
But that doesn’t always help.
“Even with that amount of chemicals it will not work,” Bennett said. “It’s just too cold.”
Bennett said the effectiveness of salt starts to deteriorate around 12 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt will still work below 10 degrees, but Bennett said crews would have to use such an excessive amount of salt that roads would be “pure white in order for it to work.”
The department will sometimes apply sand when salt is ineffective, especially at intersections, Bennett said. But in extreme cold, the sand will not stick, he said.
“When the first car goes over the sand, it just blows it right off,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the extreme cold also hampers plow trucks. The cold makes metal brittle; blades can snap off.
And then there’s the gas.
“When it gets that cold, the diesel fuel will actually gel,” he said. “It will look like Jell-O.”
(Regular unleaded gasoline does not gel in cold temperatures, according to Bennett)
Bennett said the winter season thus far has been one of the harshest he can recall, in part because of an early onset of ice that glazed roads.
“It’s definitely been harder on us this year than any of the past years I can remember for quite some time,” he said.
In fact, the tough winter could be problematic financially, as the highway department has a lower budget than normal for winter road maintenance this season because winter weather lingered long this past spring.
Should the winter road budget become depleted, Bennett said the county would have to transfer in additional money from other county accounts. But, he said, financial pressures have not hampered road maintenance.
“When it comes right down to it, we do not cut back on the level of service. We will not cut back on the level of service,” Bennett said. “People still have to travel in a safe manner, as safe as we can make it for them.”
Whatever the road conditions, Bennett advised drivers to travel with a cell phone and blanket should they experience car trouble.
Heating energy costs
According to Kerry Spees, senior public relations consultant with Integrys Energy Group, this subzero cold spell is exactly the way we didn’t want to enter the heating season.
“Colder temperatures not only increase natural gas use, they also tend to put upward pressure on natural gas prices in the marketplace. And it’s been cold over much of the nation,” Spees said. “More demand generally translates to higher market prices. We’re fortunate that the supply of natural gas is plentiful.”
Spees said while market prices have risen somewhat, they are still miles lower from the extreme prices of the winters of 2005-08.
“Customers will still likely pay several hundred dollars less for heating than just a few years ago,” Spees said.
According to Spees, Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) 2005-06 typical bills from Nov. 1-March 31 were more than $800.
“If we get a return to normal weather sometime soon, the bill might be closer to $550,” Spees said. “And let’s not forget, that’s just the heating portion of the bill. Electricity bills are likely up a bit due to increase use of furnace fans, but they’re not real big users. If anyone is using electric space heaters for supplemental heat – the electric portion of the bill will definitely rise”
According to Spees, for example, if a 1,500-watt electric space heater runs just 5 hours per day, it would add more than $1 a day to a bill.
According to numbers from the National Weather Service in Green Bay, November was about normal temperature-wise (but often had high winds which also affect gas use), but about 10 percent colder than last year. That translates to a $7-10 monthly increase for the typical WPS natural gas customer using 86 therms in November this year over last year.
According to Spees, in December, it was been about 20 percent colder than normal and a whopping 60 percent colder than a very mild December last year. The heating bill impact is about $20-25 higher than normal for a typical customer but likely $50 to $60 higher than last year if this cold weather trend continues.
No real effect on septics so far
Wayne Kelk of Kelk Land Improvement and Kelk Septic in Woodruff, said the bitterly cold weather the area has experienced in recent weeks hasn’t caused anything major in the way of frozen septic systems.
He indicated that normally, it was pretty common for residents to be having issues with septic systems in the bitterly cold weather.
“It’s very common,” he said. “We just haven’t gotten there, I guess. You would think with the amount of below zero weather we’ve had, there would be problems.”
Kelk said the amount of snow on the ground provides insulation but it’s the areas where sewer lines are under sidewalks that can be vulnerable to the cold weather.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It could be a weird year or it could be a couple weeks and everything will come unglued and the phone will be ringing off the hook.”
Our wildlife feels the effects of the cold, too. One might presume even more so than we do, but they have ways to cope, too.
Michele Woodford, DNR wildlife biologist, noted some of the behaviors to expect.
“Obviously, animals are going to be trying to conserve energy,” Woodford said. “Any extra effort that they exert is going to [be compounded] in the cold weather. They’re going to need to eat more, because they need more energy to stay warm. But, with the crust (in the snow) we’ve got, there’s going to be, potentially, some problems with that.”
She noted a rabbit that had been hanging near the DNR Woodruff office. It was trying to get the best of both worlds as it sought both a little sunlight and protection from the wind under conifers.
“[Animals are] kind of holing up in some of those thermal cover areas, like the conifers and any other place that is protected form the wind,” Woodford said.
“If we’re talking about some of our huntable species like grouse and deer, you’ll be finding them hanging out in those places that are sheltered.”
The current snow conditions might not be ideal for grouse, which like to burrow in the snow to stay warmer. They have to contend with that crust.
Woodford noted that deer are also affected by the crust and are mostly “staying on trails that have been packed down.”
But some animals thrive under such snow conditions. Hares were built for these conditions, as were some predators, like the American marten.
Take care feeding wildlife.
“Sometimes people, they get kind of concerned about the deer in the area, and it’s probably not a big deal right now, with the cold weather,” Woodford said.
“But in the spring, when the animals are showing stress, and we give them high-protein content (food), or corn, for example, which has got a lot of carbohydrates, and produce acids that actually are bad for the deer ... It’s just the same as (malnourished) people. If you give them a big, high-energy meal, it can be worse for them, if not fatal, depending how far along the animal is.”
For northern deer, the DNR keeps a winter severity index.
Severity is calculated by adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground to the number of days when low temperatures were zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower between Dec. 1 and April 30.
For instance, a day with a low temp below zero with 18 or more inches of snow on the ground counts as two points on the WSI. Severity is based on the total number of points.
A winter with an index of less than 50 is considered mild, 50-79 is considered moderate, 80-99 is severe, and more than 100 is very severe.
Deer herd population estimates take into account the WSI totals. The WSI helps wildlife managers determine how many deer may have been lost due to winter weather
The WSI does not account for all factors, though. Things like snow crust affect deer’s ability to move and forage, and a late spring, with a late green-up, can affect adult survival and fawn recruitment, even if the WSI does not indicate a sever winter.
Pet owners should be more attentive to animals during extreme cold, according to Dr. David Theuerkauf, a veterinarian at Northwoods Animal Hospital, which has locations in Minocqua, Eagle River and Manitowish Waters.
Feet and ears are particularly vulnerable, Theuerkauf said. Dogs’ feet can begin to hurt very quickly when exposed to extreme cold, which may render dogs immobile.
“Number one: if your dog is outside, watch your dog,” he said. “If you let them out to go to the bathroom, if their feet are hurting, they’ll be picking up their feet very quickly. They may not be able to walk back to the house.”
The blood supply to animals’ ears can also freeze. Theuerkauf said he has seen tips of ears die off because of frostbite.
Theuerkauf advised that pets typically kept outdoors should have, at minimum, a solid shelter from wind and dry bedding to stay warm. If possible, bring the animal inside temporarily.
“(Animals) can get cold very fast just like a person can, especially if they’re caught in a wind,” he said.
If a pet is shivering, owners can use a dryer to warm a blanket and wrap it around the animal, Theuerkauf said. For more serious exposures to cold, he suggested a warm bath.
He also advised against traveling with pets and leaving them in a car.
Most of all, Theuerkauf, a veterinarian since 1985, counseled basic prudence.
“It’s just a more common-sense thing to not let your dog sit out too long,” he said.
If pet owners are concerned about the welfare of their animals, the Northwoods Animal Hospital and other veterinarians offer emergency care services.
Lakeland Times staff contributing to this report are Joe VanDeLaarschot, Brian Jopek, Craig Turk, Jonathan Anderson and Ray Rivard