'Dry' versus 'damp' cold: Do the Prairies really fare better with dry air?

·2 min read
A pedestrian walks by River Landing beside the South Saskatchewan River during an extreme cold warning in Saskatoon on Jan. 25.
A pedestrian walks by River Landing beside the South Saskatchewan River during an extreme cold warning in Saskatoon on Jan. 25.

(Kayle Neis/The Canadian Press - image credit)

"At least it's a dry cold."

Chances are you've heard someone on the Prairies say that this past week. With a polar vortex well in place over Canada, temperatures dropped to record-setting lows in Saskatchewan this week, including in Saskatoon, where a a 116-year-old temperature record was smashed early Thursday morning.

Despite Mother Nature's merciless cold spell, the Prairies often have a reputation for faring well with the frosty weather, since the air is dry and doesn't feel damp, like in Atlantic Canada or on the West Coast.

But one of Canada's top weather officials says he doesn't believe in the "dry versus damp" debate.

"[If] you get a temperature of –20 in Regina and –20 in Kingston, [Ont.], in Kingston it's still going to be dry," Environment and Climate Change Canada senior climatologist David Phillips told CBC's The Afternoon Edition.

Submitted by David Phillips
Submitted by David Phillips

He said the difference is in the wind chill and sunshine. A place like Kingston might feel colder at –20 C because the wind is generally stronger and it's overcast.

"It's a bit of a myth, this dry cold."

Moisture makes all the difference: Lang

But Terri Lang, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in Saskatchewan, says it's not a myth — and one type of cold is definitely more noticeable than the other.

"Having lived all around this country ... I can definitely tell you that a damp cold is a lot worse than a dry cold," said Lang.

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Lang said in the winter, the Prairies don't have high levels of moisture in the atmosphere, and humidity can wreak havoc on cold temperatures.

"That moisture is absorbed into your clothing," she said. "Your body is losing heat to try and warm up the dampness of the clothing."

However, Lang agrees the wind makes a big difference.

"Imagine yourself as a cup of coffee standing out there. The faster the wind blows, the faster the heat is blown away from your body."

Surviving the 'dry cold'

Lang says dressing in layers is a good way to combat the dry cold felt in the Prairies. That includes having extra layers for the torso and legs, and extra headwear and gloves.

She also advises caution when walking or playing with pets outside, as they can also suffer from frostbite and other cold-related ailments.

Temperatures in Saskatchewan are expected to remain frigid over the weekend, but will return to seasonal by early next week as the polar vortex retreats.