MAR 24, 2015 4:56 AM PDT

Snowstorm Deaths Under Reported

Winter storms can wreak havoc with our lives, but you probably don't think of them as bringing the sort of deadly menace that's usually associated with hurricanes or tornadoes. But a newly published study could change our mind.

In a recent article in the scientific journal Climate, Weather, and Society, University of Georgia atmospheric scientists Alan Black and Thomas Mote studied 15 years of U.S. data on fatalities. They concluded that the official death tolls compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have vastly underestimated the deadly power of winter storms, because NOAA doesn't factor in fatal events such as car and plane crashes that were indirectly caused by the weather.
Park Rangers in Boston dig out after a massive snow storm in January 2015
The scientists added transportation mishaps that had a connection to winter weather - in addition to the 571 winter storm fatalities officially reported between 1996 and 2011 - and found that the United States actually suffered 13,852 winter storm deaths, according to a description of the study's findings in Science News. That makes winter storms 24 times as deadly as the officials statistics might make it seem.

NOAA only counts direct deaths that are "directly attributable to the hydro-meteorological event itself," according to a 2007 document. The latter might include, for example, a person who is killed when a tree covered with snow topples onto him. A vehicle that slides across an icy road and collides with a car, in contrast, is considered an indirect result of the winter storm.

A NOAA chart shows that the agency attributed 42 deaths to winter weather in 2013. That's fewer than the 47 deaths blamed on hurricanes, the 82 caused by floods, or the 92 caused by high temperatures. But the agency's website itself acknowledges that winter storm-related deaths actually are far higher, "because most deaths are not directly related to the storm itself," and cites icy roads as a major threat.

A handout compiled by the University of Georgia's Black for a meteorological conference shows that most of the fatalities for winter-storm-related car accidents were concentrated in the northeastern United States. The heaviest concentration of winter aviation accidents actually was in the desert areas of southern California.

Besides Black's and Mote's study, there are other indications that NOAA may be under-counting the deaths caused by winter storms. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 1,300 people die each year from hypothermia, caused by exposure to excessive natural cold.

(Source: Discovery News)
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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