Why Michigan Wind Chill Temperatures Are All Wrong

Poet Mary Macgowan has published poems in more than 50 literary journals, but this time, she’s trying her hand at an essay. Mary writes about Michigan wind chill, and why it’s all wrong, in this essay featured in the January 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. (Get your copy here!)


When the weather people talk about the winter wind chill factor, they’re telling us nothing we don’t already know: When there’s wind, it’s going to feel colder than the temperature reading. There is a danger, here, though, but not the frostbite kind. Many people have begun to use wind chill factor as a true temperature reading. Beware: it’s a slippery slope.

I warned my friend Ed about my driveway during winters in Traverse City, Michigan. How nobody can drive up and out of my driveway without AWD or 4WD. There has yet to be a man who believes me. Something about men and wanting to make it up a hill. Women? No-brainer, they park at the top and walk down to my house. Ed drove down it, of course, so then he had to drive up it. And couldn’t. But together we swept ashes out of the fireplace and spread them along the tire tracks, and up he went. Too bad there was more snow in the forecast and a lack of ashes in the fireplace. We’re stranded for the weekend. Wind chill can be like that, too, if you heed its overly cautious lament: a slippery slope can trap you inside your own home.

Ed asks Siri about wind chill; she says that in 2001 this new formula was adopted: 35.74+.6215T-35.75V+.4275TV. V is the windspeed, T is the temperature. And, according to Siri, algebra rules apply. Scientists tested people in wind tunnels to see how much their faces cooled under various conditions.

And then there’s quantum physics. Scientists say that those “little squiggly things” only exist while they’re observed. Well, my understanding of quantum physics only exists for as long as whatever quantum physics article I’m reading.

There are so many things we’re asked to believe nowadays. We value our specialists because life is too complex for one person to know it all. We believe mammograms, X-rays, the amount of antioxidants in blueberries. Calories. That airplanes fly. Steep snowy driveways. Physicists who report about those “little squiggly things.” We’re asked to believe in wind chill.

Susan, a friend in Hoboken, a friend who takes breathtaking photos of New York City from her terrace, told me that she likes the wind chill factor because it helps her decide how to dress for the weather. I understand that, and it’s fine with me if people use it as a guideline while understanding its essential non-fact-ness. But then Susan called to tell me that she spoke with a cousin recently, who told her that it was -23 degrees where she lives. Susan was incredulous and, thinking of me and a recent rant about wind chill factor (yes, I’ve been known to go on about it), asked her cousin if it was really -23. The answer? Well, that’s the wind chill temperature. Susan sends photos of the Hudson River’s chunky slushy ice.

Ed asked if I’m a conspiracy theorist. No. What I believe is that we can be skeptical believers. That weather reporters want high ratings. The wind chill factor scares the heck out of people, and fear is a great motivating factor to get people to watch the weather channels.

While we can believe physicists and their tests that prove magical qualities about little squiggly things are true, we cannot believe everything we hear. The next time a reporter talks about the wind chill factor, think of me, and think twice. It’s cold out there, baby, but almost certainly not quite as cold as you think.

If the Michigan wind chill doesn’t scare you, check out these unbelievably gorgeous outdoor winter getaways


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