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Should We Replace “Wind Chill Factor”?

In a continuation of our series, based on this book, which discusses scientific ideas that need to be reexamined, Dr.’s Doug Cobos and Colin Campbell make a case for standard operative temperature to replace wind chill factor:

Frost covered plant in early morning

Currently, the forecast is based on air temperature and wind chill. What the forecast leaves out is the effect of radiation.

What are we looking for when we look at a weather forecast?  We want to know how we’re going to feel and what we need to wear when we go outside. Currently, the forecast is based on air temperature and wind chill, which are a major part of the picture, but not all of it.  What the forecast leaves out is the effect of radiation.  If you go out on a cold, sunny day, you’re going to be warmer than you would be at that same temperature and wind speed on a  cloudy day.  It’s not going to feel the same.  So why not replace wind chill with the more accurate measurement of standard operative temperature?

Where wind chill came from:

In 1969, a scientist named Landsberg created a chart showing how people feel at a certain air temperature and wind speed. His chart was based on work by Paul Siple and Charles Passel.  But, Siple and Passel’s work was done in Antarctica using a covered bottle of water under the assumption that you were wearing the thickest coat ever made.  The table was updated in 2001 to improve its accuracy, but since the coat thickness assumption remained unchanged it underestimates the chill that you feel. It also explicitly leaves out radiation, assuming the worst case scenario of a clear night sky. The controversy is detailed in this NY Times article from several years ago.

Ice covered lake with the sun reflecting off the surface, a bench in front of the lake in the snow with a person walking next to it

Siple and Passel’s work was done in Antarctica using a covered bottle of water under the assumption a person was wearing the thickest coat ever made.

During the winter, forecasters use air temperature and wind chill with no radiation component.  In the summertime, they use an index that takes into account the temperature and the humidity called the heat index.  But again, there is no accounting for radiation. Our families deal with this all the time when we take the kids out fishing in early spring. Before we leave, we’ll check the weather report for temperature and wind chill.  But is it going to be sunny or cloudy?  That’s key information. You can see the radiation effect in action when a cloud drifts in front of the sun.  All the kids scramble for their jackets because the perceived temperature has changed.  This is something that none of the indices actually capture.

Understanding the concept:

Standard operative temperature combines the effects of radiation and wind speed to give a more complete understanding of how you will feel outside.  It is a simple energy balance: the amount of energy coming in from the sun and metabolism minus the amount of energy going out through heat and vapor loss. Using this relationship and adding in the heat and vapor conductances, the temperature that we might “feel” can be graphed against the solar zenith angle at a fixed air temperature. For reference, the sun is directly overhead when the zenith angle is 0 degrees and at the horizon at 90 degrees.

Wind Chill and standard Operative temperature chart

Figure: Wind chill and standard operative temperature with respect to sun angle for two wind speeds (1 and 10 m/s) at an air temperature of -5 degrees C.

What’s interesting is that on a clear day when the sun is around 45 degrees (typical for around noon in the winter) and the temperature is -5 degrees C, if the wind is blowing at 1 m/s, you would feel a temperature of 6 degrees C (relatively warm). The wind chill predicts the feel at -6 degrees C, a huge difference in comfort.  This difference decreases with increasing wind speed as you’d expect, but even for the same conditions and wind at 10 m/s, the 45-degree sun angle creates a temperature feel 7 degrees C higher than the wind chill.  Although not huge, this makes a considerable difference in perceived comfort.

What do we do now?

The interesting thing is that all the tools to measure radiation are there. Most weather stations have a pyranometer that measures solar radiation, and some of them even measure longwave radiation, which can also be estimated within reasonable bounds. This means forecasters have all the tools to report the standard operative temperature, which is the actual temperature that you feel.  Why not incorporate standard operative temperature into each forecast? Using standard operative temperature we could have the right number, so we’d know exactly what to wear at any given time.   It’s an easy equation, and forecast websites could use it to report a “comfort index” or comfort operative temperature that will tell us exactly how we’ll feel when we go outside.

Which scientific ideas do you think need to be reexamined?

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