When we hear that someone died of exposure to extreme temperatures, we typically picture someone stranded alone at the top of a mountain or falling through ice.
While these things do happen, what many don’t realize is that people die from exposure to the cold all the time – even in their homes.
During the summer months, we receive plenty of warnings about heat exposure.
But cold weather kills 20 times as many people as hot weather, according to a study published in The Lancet journal.
In recent years, U.S. death rates in winter months have been 8% - 12% higher than in non-winter months.
There have been multiple times throughout history when a sudden and drastic change in temperature has led to deaths by exposure.
People were unprepared for cold temperatures, and they paid the price with their lives.
Today, we’re covering 5 exposure tragedies in hopes we can learn from their mistakes and better our chances of survival when battling the elements.
The Great Blizzard of 1888
On March 11, 1988, a blizzard hit the Northeast and caused over 400 American deaths.
The blizzard brought 55 inches of snow to the areas where 1 in 4 Americans lived at the time.
While the blizzard was raging, many New Yorkers exposed themselves to the cold as they tried to take the trains to work.
According to History, “Up to 15,000 people were stranded on the elevated trains; in many areas, enterprising people with ladders offered to rescue the passengers for a small fee. […] Simply walking the streets was perilous. In fact, only 30 people out of 1,000 were able to make it to the New York Stock Exchange for work. […] There were also several instances of people collapsing in snow drifts and dying.”
What We Can Learn: Do not go outside in harsh winter conditions. Blizzards can be disorienting and lead to deaths every year as people become lost. Staying warm is a priority. Invest in a Vesta stove and space heater to prevent freezing indoors.
The Franklin Expedition of 1845
Captain Sir John Franklin attempted to take a crew from England to explore the Arctic on 2 different ships.
The goal was to travel some of the unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic.
Unfortunately, both ships became stranded in the Victoria Straight and were icebound for over a year.
A year later, the remaining crew (24 men had already died), attempted to find their way home but perished in Canada due to a lack of adequate supplies for lengthy exposure to the cold.
What We Can Learn: When you travel, always take more than you need. Keep an emergency kit in your car with food and other emergency supplies.
The Donner Party of 1846-1847
When we mention The Donner Party, people’s minds immediately turn to cannibalism.
It is a horrific and upsetting story about a group of 81 people on a Westward expedition.
They wrongly timed their departure and wound up traveling through some of the toughest and coldest terrain during the winter.
They depleted their resources early in their journey, leaving them without food. Plus, they were not prepared for the harsh winter conditions.
As a result, only 45 survived… and many of these 45 survived by turning to cannibalism of their fellow travelers who died of starvation, sickness, and hypothermia.
What We Can Learn: Prepare for more than the minimum. The Donner Party did not prepare enough supplies for their journey. They packed just enough – and it wasn’t enough when things started to go wrong. Don’t just stock up on 3 days’ worth of emergency food, go far beyond it with a 3-month supply.
Winter Storm Uri in Texas in 2021
We expect blizzards in the North, but we don’t expect freezing cold temperatures in Texas.
That’s why Winter Storm Uri was so devastating in 2021.
The winter storm hit over Valentine’s Day and resulted in 246 confirmed winter storm-related deaths.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, “By circumstance and cause of death, 161 (65.4%) winter storm-related deaths were extreme cold exposure-related injuries comprising 158 (64.2%) deaths from hypothermia and three (1.2%) from frostbite.
“Among decedents succumbing to hypothermia, 107 (67.7%) were aged 60 years or older, 22 (13.9%) had a history of alcohol abuse or were actively drinking during the winter storm, eight (5.0%) had illicit drug use cause or contribute to death, and three (1.9%) had both alcohol and drug abuse.
“Other behavior or risk factors associated with increased risk of hypothermia among decedents included engaging in outdoor repair activity during the storm, not wearing appropriate clothing or enough layering, experiencing homelessness or returning to homelessness during the storm, and refusing to evacuate to heated sheltering or warming centers.”
What We Can Learn: Dressing appropriately and staying warm is a priority.
Mount Everest Tragedy in 2019
No matter how prepared they are, climbers lose their lives every year on their quest to climb Mount Everest.
But 2019 proved to be an especially deadly year.
11 people died in 2019 as the result of a traffic jam on the summit.
Overcrowding has become a serious issue, making the trek longer and more arduous.
News reports suggest, “During the week beginning May 20, crowds of climbers became stuck in a queue to the summit, above the mountain’s highest camp at 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). The summit of Mount Everest is 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) high. Most people can only spend a matter of minutes at the summit without extra oxygen supplies, and the area where mountaineers have been delayed is known to many as the ‘death zone.’”
The large crowds, the sudden temperature changes, and the lack of supplies contributed to these deaths.
Note – Many of the climbers who died in 2019 were at Mount Everest when the temperature was ideal. However, the crowds lengthened the time to reach the peak, and the elements changed.
What We Can Learn: Always check the weather, but still be prepared for sudden weather changes. For example, a hiker whose clothes become drenched by a sudden rainstorm is just as at risk for hypothermia as someone in icy water.
Hypothermia Can Happen Indoors
People often mistakenly believe that cold exposure or hypothermia only occurs outdoors.
Yet, every year, people die inside their homes from cold exposure.
Last year, the actress Alicia Witt from The Walking Dead, revealed her parents died from “exposure to the cold” inside their Massachusetts home. Their home lacked a working heating system.
While this elderly couple made the news because of their daughter’s celebrity status, many more people die each year the same way – indoors without a working heating system.
During Winter Storm Uri in Texas, more than a dozen people died in homes when they lost electricity.
According to AP News, “They include an 11-year-old boy who died in his bed in Conroe, near Houston, and two older men found dead in their homes in the small West Texas town of Buffalo Gap in Taylor County.”
On a related note, many people also die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from incorrectly using generators indoors in winter.
A wise way to be prepared for winter storms and power outages is to invest in a Vesta space heater and stove. It can be used indoors and outdoors safely and doesn’t require electricity.
Always Be Prepared for Cold Weather Exposure
We don’t want anyone to die from cold exposure. We want our readers to learn from history so that it doesn’t repeat itself.
You can take steps today to make sure you are always safe from the cold.
- Invest in a Vesta Indoor/Outdoor Space Heater and Stove. One of the smartest investments you can make is the Vesta Self-Powered Indoor Space Heater & Stove. Not only will this keep you safely warm outdoors, but you can also use it safely indoors. Plus, if you lose power, you can use Vesta to cook food.
- Always Have an Emergency Blanket and Hand Warmers in your vehicle and at home. Make a point to always have these 2 emergency supplies with you in the winter months or traveling to higher elevations. Both are small and lightweight and can save your life if you get stranded in extreme weather or the power goes out for an extended period of time.
- Keep a Car Emergency Kit in Your Trunk. Driving in winter weather conditions is dangerous. You should always have a car emergency kit in your vehicle. Make sure in addition to emergency supplies, you have food and water in the kit.
- Pay Attention to the Weather. Before you head anywhere, check the weather. The number of people who find themselves in dangerous situations while hiking because they didn’t check the weather is ridiculous.
- Avoid Alcohol. Alcohol fools people into thinking it is warming them up, but it actually accelerates heat loss.
- Dress Correctly. Too much insulation causes sweating and too little accelerates heat loss. Up to 50% heat loss can take place from an uncovered head, so always make sure you have a hat if traveling out.
Stay warm, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply