El Niño remains a primary driver of temperature and precipitation patterns over North America in the near future, and factors heavily into the latest outlooks. Importantly, El Niño acts alongside long-term trends (due in part to climate change) to impact seasonal temperatures and El Niño is forecast to persist through May. Areas where El Niño historically favors below-normal temperatures can also have long-term warming trends, such as the southern U.S and the North Slope of Alaska. For February 2024, above-normal temperatures are more likely across Alaska, much of the northern and central Contiguous U.S., and the Hawaiian Islands. The greatest chance (70-80%) for above-normal temperatures exists for the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest. Near-normal temperatures are favored for parts of the Desert Southwest and the Southeast, including Florida. The remainder of the U.S. has equal chances for below-, near-, or above-normal seasonal temperatures.
Figure: This NOAA Climate Prediction Center February temperature outlook shows the most likely outcome in terms of probabilities, but this is not the only possible outcome.
For February 2024, odds of above-normal precipitation are elevated for much of the Southwest including California, the central and southern Plains, the Southeast Coast, and parts of southern Alaska. Southern California and adjacent regions of Nevada and Arizona are most like to have above-normal precipitation (60-70%). Below-normal precipitation is favored for the Pacific Northwest, the Hawaiian Islands, and from the Great Lakes south to the Ohio Valley, and eastward into much of the Northeast. The remainder of the U.S. will see equal chances for below-, near-, or above-average seasonal precipitation.
Figure: This NOAA Climate Prediction Center February precipitation outlook shows the most likely outcome in terms of probabilities. Higher probabilities mean higher confidence, but this is not the only possible outcome.
Figure: This map of the U.S. is colored by the combined National Risk Index composite ratings for Winter Weather, Ice Storm, and Cold Wave.
As our climate changes, extreme weather events are increasing in both frequency and intensity, and for some places, that means an increased risk of winter hazards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides information on the risk of different climate hazards across the 50 states and Washington, D.C., through the National Risk Index (NRI) platform. The NRI leverages available data for natural hazards and community risk factors to develop a baseline relative risk measurement for each U.S. county and census tract. The combined NRI for Winter Weather, Ice Storms, and Cold Waves, shown on the map above, represents a community's relative risk for winter weather (winter storm events in which the main types of precipitation are snow, sleet, or freezing rain), ice storms (freezing rain events with significant ice accumulations), and cold waves (rapid falls in temperature within 24 hours and extreme low temperatures for an extended period), based on the historical annualized frequency of such weather, when compared to the rest of the U.S.
1,505 counties across 49 states plus D.C. are estimated to have “very high,” “relatively high,” or “relatively moderate” winter weather risk (all states have at least one county in these risk categories except for Nevada; insufficient data are available for U.S. territories). In these counties, the total population at risk is 223,204,711 people and, of those, 23,209,898 people work outdoors. Risk factors vary across the 1,505 counties identified by FEMA. Of these counties:
567 (38%) have a high number* of people aged 65 or over, living alone.
581 (39%) have a high number of children under 5 years old.
550 (37%) have a high number of people living in poverty.
198 (13%) have a high number of people with frequent mental distress.
319 (21%) have a high number of people spending a large proportion of their income on home energy.
498 (33%) have a high number of people with electricity-dependent medical equipment enrolled in the HHS emPOWER program.
469 (31%) have a high number of people in mobile homes.
299 (20%) have a higher number of adults with asthma.
232 (15%) have a high number of adults with coronary heart disease.
561 (37%) have a high number of people with one or more disabilities.
276 (18%) are identified as highly vulnerable by CDC's Social Vulnerability Index.
*“A high number” indicates that these counties are in the top quartile for this indicator compared to other counties
Winter Weather Affects Health in Many Ways
Winter can bring extreme cold, freezing rain, snow, ice, and high winds, which can last a few hours or several days.
- Those with inadequate indoor heating or clothing coverage, and those who work outdoors are at greater risk of hypothermia and frostbite with prolonged exposure to excessive cold.
- Winter storms can lead to outages of power, heating, and communication systems, which can pose safety hazards, especially for people who critically depend on electricity-dependent medical equipment.
- Using space heaters, fireplaces, or appliances that are not meant for heating, such as ovens or stoves, can increase the risk of fire and worsen indoor air quality.
- Running a generator indoors or outdoors without adequate ventilation can cause carbon monoxide [CO] exposure, which can lead to loss of consciousness and death. Over 400 people die each year from accidental CO poisoning.
- Walking or driving on slippery surfaces in the winter can lead to injuries and vehicle accidents.
- Extreme cold can cause pipes to freeze and burst. Standing water from burst pipes can lead to mold growth, which increases risk of respiratory issues, particularly for people with asthma, allergies, or other breathing conditions.
- The combination of cold temperatures, which can increase blood pressure, and potential overexertion while shoveling snow can increase the risk of heart attack.
Staying Safe Indoors This Winter: New LIHEAP Eligibility Tool
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps households struggling with their energy bills to stay safe indoors in the winter. LIHEAP benefits provide support to households with low incomes, especially those who are particularly vulnerable to the negative health impacts of unsafe indoor air temperatures including households with older adults, individuals with disabilities, and young children.
Reaching households in need of energy assistance is critical to keeping families and individuals safe and healthy in their homes. The new user-friendly LIHEAP eligibility tool allows households across the country to quickly identify if they might be eligible for LIHEAP assistance by inputting basic information like income and household size. The LIHEAP eligibility tool is available in English, Spanish, traditional Chinese, and simplified Chinese. Individuals interested in applying for energy assistance can also visit energyhelp.us or call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) hotline toll free at 866-674-6327.
Recommendations & Resources to Prepare and Protect Your Health from Winter Weather Hazards
- Prepare your home with weatherization measures to keep out the cold, check your heating system, inspect and clean fireplaces and chimneys, have a safe alternate heating source and alternate fuels available, learn how to keep pipes from freezing, and install and test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors with battery backups. In addition to LIHEAP, the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program and local weatherization programs available through utility companies may provide assistance to weatherize homes and make them more energy efficient.
- Build disaster supplies kit(s) for the home and car keeping in mind each person’s specific needs, including medication. Make sure your vehicle has at least a half tank of gas so that you can stay warm if you become stranded.
- Find a community winter shelter/warming center that you can relocate to in case your home is unable to keep you warm during extreme cold events or if you lack access to a house. This information may be available via local government websites or state 2-1-1 resources.
- Pay attention to weather reports, such as from weather.gov, as well as alerts and warnings of freezing weather and winter storms.
- Protect outdoor workers. Train workers to prevent, recognize, and treat cold-related illness and injury. Schedule maintenance and repair jobs in cold areas for warmer months. Include a medical and environmental thermometer and chemical hot packs in first aid kits.
- Follow best practices for preventing fires while heating your home in the winter, including safety measures if you are using a portable heater. If you are using a portable generator to power your home during extreme winter weather, run the generator outside the home, in well-ventilated areas, and away from all doors, windows, and vents to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Limit your time outside. When you go outside, wear layers of warm clothing even if you don't think you'll be out long; however, you should remove layers as you sweat since perspiration can lower body temperature.
- Avoid non-essential travel. If you travel, inform others of where you will be before leaving and avoid ice on walkways, roads, bridges, and overpasses.
- Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow to reduce the risk of heart attack.
- Check on neighbors. Extreme cold conditions have differing impacts on people depending on their age, access to shelter, and health. Populations at elevated risk during winter weather extremes include:
- Infants and young children
- Older adults, who may be more susceptible to hypothermia due to slower metabolism and reduced physical activity
- People experiencing homelessness
- Individuals with heart disease, high blood pressure, and/or respiratory conditions
- Protect outdoor workers. Reduce workers’ time spent in the cold environment and the physical demands of workers (rotate extra workers for long, demanding jobs). Ensure access to warm areas and a place to change out of wet clothes. Encourage workers to take breaks to warm up when needed. Monitor workers for symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia and initiate a buddy system. Provide appropriate cold weather gear such as hats, gloves, and boots.
This figure from NOAA provides recommendations for clothing layers to keep you safe in varying degrees of coldness.
Watch for signs of frostbite and hypothermia and begin treatment right away.
- Frostbite causes loss of feeling and color around the face, fingers, and toes.
- Symptoms: Numbness and skin that is white or grayish-yellow and firm or waxy
- Actions: Go to a warm room. Soak in warm (not hot) water. Use body heat to warm. Do not massage or use a heating pad.
- Hypothermia is an unusually low body temperature. A temperature below 95 degrees F is an emergency. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it.
- Early Symptoms: Shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness.
- Late Symptoms: No shivering, blue skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and breathing, and loss of consciousness.
- Actions: If hypothermia is suspected, medical assistance should be requested immediately (call 911). Go to a warm room and remove wet clothing. Warm the center of the body first—chest, neck, head, and groin. Keep dry and wrapped up in warm blankets, including the head and neck. Drink warm beverages. If no pulse, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should be provided and continued during the warming attempts.
- The CDC and FEMA provide additional guidance on preparing for, enduring, and responding to winter hazards at Preparing for a Winter Storm, Extreme Cold Prevention Guide, Be prepared for a winter storm, and Stay Safe During and After a Winter Storm.
- Resources to help kids prepare for winter weather and cope with storms include Ready Wrigley Prepares for Winter Weather and Disaster Preparation Games.
- OSHA and NIOSH provide guidance for outdoor workers at their Winter Weather and Cold Stress pages.
- Los recursos también están disponibles en español: Listo Calixto se prepara para el invierno y Esté Preparado Para Una Tormenta De Invierno.