Cold weather dos and don'ts
It's not all that uncommon for temperatures in this part of Minnesota and North Dakota to hit the minus-20s at this time of year.
"Traditionally, we've had the tendency to see some of our coldest air of the season arrive in early February," says Daryl Ritchison, a meteorologist with WDAY-TV in Fargo.
But the cold snap that was anticipated to sweep through the region today (Sunday) and tomorrow is "the coldest this area has been in two or three years," he adds.
Nevertheless, most native Minnesotans don't even blink an eye when the thermometer drops into the minus-20s and -30s.
"In general, if you're born and raised in this climate, you tend not to take it (subzero temperatures) very seriously -- but cold weather is really very dangerous," Ritchison warns. "Cold weather kills a lot more people than most realize."
Though the exact amount of time varies according to windchill, how warmly a person is dressed, and so forth, frost bite can sometimes occur in as little as 10 minutes, he adds.
"Fortunately, there will be very little windchill this weekend," says Ritchison. "The wind will be very light on Sunday and Monday, so we're really just dealing with air temperature. It's really just a matter of common sense."
Thus, it pays to be prepared when traveling in subzero weather -- and "being prepared" means more than just making sure you have your cell phone with you, according to Ritchison.
"What if your cell phone goes dead, or you're in an area where there's no signal?" he says. "What if no one can get to you (to rescue you) for an hour or more?"
No matter if you're planning on driving 10 miles or 100, having a winter survival kit in the trunk is essential.
"You should always carry jumper cables, window scrapers, an extra blanket or sleeping bag," says Ritchison. "Even if you're not wearing them, there should always be a hat, scarf and mittens in the car."
Dressing in layers is also an added level of protection against the cold, he adds. "It's also good to have a couple of candy bars or a little food, even if you're only going to be waiting an hour (for a rescuer to arrive).
"You should be able to survive in your car, without heat, for 36 hours if you have the right gear."
It also doesn't hurt to have a little kitty litter or sand in your trunk, as well as a shovel, to dig your car out if it becomes stuck -- if the wheels are too deeply entrenched, however, it's better to wait for a rescuer to come along, Ritchison says. And don't leave your vehicle unless it becomes absolutely necessary, he cautions.
"Every circumstance is a little bit different, but the general rule is to stay with your vehicle," Ritchison says. "A lot of people have perished because they left their vehicle. Even a short distance can often times be a long way (in extreme cold). If you're on a main road, help will usually come along. Your vehicle is your protection (against the elements).
"It's not fun having a flat tire (when the temperature is) at 80 above, but if you go out traveling -- even when there's no bad weather concerns -- and it's 28 below zero, if your car breaks down ... you can get yourself in trouble in a hurry if you're not prepared," Ritchison says.
Of course, one way to ensure that doesn't happen is to make sure your vehicle is in tip-top shape.
"The biggest thing is to make sure your car is tuned up properly - that the engine is running at peak performance," says Don Tollefson of Allpro Auto Repair in Detroit Lakes.
Worn out spark plugs, a dying battery, low tire pressure -- all these problems can become exacerbated when the temperature drops below zero degrees. "We check out everything -- fluids, belts, (windshield) wipers, hoses, suspension... any maintenance (not done) that could have an effect on leaving you stranded is critical," he adds.
Installing a block heater in your engine is also probably a good idea -- especially in Minnesota. "For most cars, it's fairly easy to install," Tollefson says. "And it makes it so much easier to start your car in the morning if you have it plugged in (overnight)."
But even if you decide to stay at home, there are some precautions that should be taken. Arctic temperatures combined with low snow cover can increase the likelihood that water pipes will freeze.
"The biggest thing is to make sure you have enough heat in the house," says Tom Campbell, plumbing manager for Modern Plumbing & Heating in Detroit Lakes. Keeping the pipes warm is critical.
If your water pipes are located inside a cabinet or closet, "open the doors and make sure you have air flow getting in there, so the air moves around and keeps them warm," he added.
One popular idea is that water faucets should be allowed to drip slightly to keep the water moving. This is not a good idea, Campbell cautions.
"If it's really cold outside, your worst enemy is a dripping faucet or leaking toilet," he says. "That's what's going to cause an ice plug to form... (and) your sewer pipes to freeze."
Pet and livestock care also becomes important when temperatures hit arctic extremes, according to local veterinarian Dr. Dennis Lange.
"Some dogs -- huskies and other long-haired dogs -- are used to (the cold), and it's not really a problem at all as long as they can get to a place that's dry and out of the wind," he says.
Just like people, animals are susceptible to frost bite and other cold-weather difficulties, so being able to find shelter from the snow and wind can be critical to their health. But if they're used to the cold, they can be outside for long periods of time with adequate shelter.
Cats, even those who live outdoors much of the time, also need a little more care in subzero temperatures, Lange notes.
"Cats will naturally seek a warm spot if there is any available," he says. "But they need to be dry and out of the wind."
Just like humans, a cat's ears are vulnerable to frost bite -- particularly young ones, Lange adds.
"If they're outside long enough, and they get wet, they can freeze their ears and tails," he says. Additionally, if they're going to be spending some time outdoors, both cats and dogs should be kept well fed, with a fresh supply of water that is replenished regularly to keep it from freezing.
"You should also feed them a little richer diet -- more fats and proteins -- to give them more energy," Lange adds.
Indoor pets' exposure to the cold should, in general, be kept to a minimum, he says. "They weren't bred to survive in that kind of weather."
The same rules apply to livestock, Lange notes. "Livestock also need to have shelter from the wind... if they have that, they can bear quite a bit of cold.
"Water is a concern," he adds. "They need to be watered more frequently, so it doesn't freeze -- and you should use warm water. They also need plenty to eat."
Cold temperatures can be particularly hazardous for beef cattle in the process of calving (giving birth), Lange cautions.
"Cattle can really bear a lot, but if they calve in this kind of weather, it can be real trouble," he says. "You need to bring them in out of the wind and get them dried off."