Project Winter: Wet vs. dry snow and health risks when shoveling

The latest, up-to-date local news provided by the Heart of Illinois ABC News team, with updates on community issues in the Peoria and Bloomington-Normal areas.
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 3:58 PM CDT
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EAST PEORIA (Heart of Illinois ABC) - Well, winter is coming isn’t it? Whether we like it or not the weather is becoming colder. The nights are becoming longer. Eventually, snow will begin to fall in the Heart of Illinois.

When it comes time to forecast the white stuff we will all begin thinking about the aftermath, regardless of how much actually falls. At the beginning of the winter months, we often see more wet snow. This type of snow is typically heavier, and the chore of clearing this snow is usually the hardest. That job of clearing snow is very strenuous on the body and can lead to health problems if you push it too far. We’ll discuss that in a moment.

When talking about how “wet” or “dry” snowfall is we are talking about the snow ratio. This ratio refers to the amount of air to water that is contained in the snow.

“Generally with wet snow that we tend to get in the early part of the season late fall early winter or late winter, early spring during when it’s not quite as cold. Usually, the snow ratios are less than 10:1 can be as low as 4 or 5:1 ratios.” Said Kirk Huettl, a meteorologist with the Lincoln office of the National Weather Service. When snow ratios dip to the 5:1 level, that is very wet snow, there is not a lot of air contained in that. The standard ratio that we hear discussed in the general public is the 10:1 ratio, which translates to 1 inch of rain equals 10 inches of snow.

As we get into the dead of winter we start to see significantly colder temperatures. The atmosphere begins to struggle to contain moisture as the temperature dips farther and farther below the freezing level. Snow ratios of 20:1, sometimes 30:1 can result from very cold temperatures and this is the type of snow that blows around and drifts to significant heights.

Regardless of the snow ratio that falls during this winter, we are going to have to clear it and that job is hard on the body. It is particularly hard on your heart which is not exactly designed to do strenuous work when the temperature is so cold outside.

“The main risk but shoveling heavy snow is not just that it’s heavy, but it’s usually performed under very cold circumstances, it’ll cause the blood vessels to kind of clampdown increase your blood pressure, which exercise also does but you add that to the effect of the cold and that that can cause dangerous increases in blood pressure, especially in people who have heart disease.” Said Rebecca Baumann, M.D. and Cardiologist for OSF.

It is particularly dangerous for those who are already suffering from heart conditions. Dr. Baumann also said that she sees a handful of patients during the winter months that end up in the hospital directly because of shoveling heavy snow for too long.

So what is the solution here? It is a job we have to do regardless right?

Dr. Baumann says if you have a heart condition or some other condition that makes you at risk, just don’t clear snow. She said you could hire someone to do it, maybe a friend or neighbor. If you’re going to clear the snow, she recommends using a snowblower or snow plow, taking a significant amount of work off your body directly. Most importantly, she says to take frequent breaks. “Don’t just try to keep powering through it.” Said Dr. Baumann.

Project Winter will be running throughout the month of November only on Heart of Illinois ABC. Next week, morning Meteorologist Balint Szalavari will discuss how climate change has affected winters in the Heart of Illinois.

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