Skip to content

Six pieces of weather wisdom deconstructed

Fact check: six popular weather stories and one bad piece of earthquake advice
A shot of lightning illuminating the sky during a thunderstorm in Prince George.

Some stories have been passed down through millennia, their assumptions rarely challenged. Some with more modern origins are still repeated by parents today.  

Whether seeking to explain or warn, taking weather myths at face value can be dangerous.

Here we evaluate six pieces of popular weather wisdom (and a bad piece of earthquake advice) — asking the question, do they hold up to modern scientific consensus?

1) Big storms are the deadliest form of weather

While tornadoes and hurricanes often receive significant attention because of their destructive power, in Canada, they are far from the deadliest form of weather.

One 2015 study found that between 1985 and 2012, nearly 4.5 per cent of deaths in Canada were due to the cold. Globally, over that time period, cold weather killed 20 times more people than hot weather, with most of those deaths occurring on mildly cold days.

That’s not to say that extreme heat doesn’t kill. In recent years, heat waves have led to a number of mass casualty events — including one in B.C. in 2009 that is thought to have taken at least 120 lives; another in 2010, saw 280 excess deaths across eight health regions in Quebec. Meanwhile, a different heat wave in 2018 was thought to have killed nearly 100 people in Ontario and Quebec, including at least 50 in Montreal alone, according to the Canadian Disaster Database.

The most deadly single weather-related disaster in Canadian history was in 2021, when a prolonged heat wave took the lives of nearly 600 people in B.C. alone. A rapid attribution study later found the record event was made 100 times more likely due to human-caused climate warming.

In B.C., avalanches also present one of the more deadly weather-related disasters. In 2003, 30 people died in Golden, Fernie, Valemount, Nelson, Revelstoke and other areas along the B.C.-Alberta border, making it the deadliest season since 1970.

“The higher death toll was in part due to unusual weather patterns brought by an El Niño winter,” notes the Canadian Disaster Database.

2) Lightning never strikes the same place twice

"Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” It’s one of weather’s most famous adages — and like many myths associated with the phenomenon, it’s completely false.

According to Environment Canada, the country’s tallest building, the CN tower, gets struck by lightning an average of 75 times per year.

Every year, an average of two to three people are struck and killed by lightning in Canada. Another 180 people are injured, with most strikes on people occurring in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

Most of those who are killed are between 18 and 54, and 85 per cent are men. Lightning deaths are most common among campers, hikers and walkers, as well as people working outside. Together, they accounted for nearly half of all fatalities.

And when it comes to the most non-fatal lightning injuries in Canada, 23 per cent were engaged in outdoor sports, like soccer, golf or baseball.

Rubber boots and the rubber tires of a bicycle are not enough to protect you from a 30,000 degree Celsius lightning strike, according to Environment Canada.

The safest places are inside a vehicle — lightning will flash over the metal shell of a car — or inside a home with plumbing and wiring, so long as you stay away from appliances, doors, windows, fireplaces or anything metal, like sinks, bathtubs and showers, says the ministry.

Direct lightning strikes are only responsible for three to five per cent of deaths and injuries in Canada. Ground current and side flashes — where lightning strikes a tree or pole and disperses through the ground or another object up to 30 metres away — are responsible for 60 per cent of lightning injuries or deaths.

That total climbs to 75 per cent when you add people hurt by contacting lightning through a fence or tree.

3) Alcohol will warm you up when you’re cold

Drinking alcohol before stepping outside on a winter night may make you feel warmer — largely due to the increased blood flow to the extremities — but actually, you are losing heat and taking one step closer to hypothermia, warns Health Canada.

Or as Fraser Health, British Columbia’s largest health authority, puts it: “It promotes heat loss [and] can lead to a false sense of warmth.”

According to one study that reviewed a full body of research on the subject in the mid-1990s, the main way alcohol drops the body’s core temperature during cold exposure comes from its ability to block shivering.

Another 2005 study led by a Japanese researcher gave a drink with 15 per cent alcohol in it to eight healthy men. Blood flow to the skin and the rate of chest sweating increased after 10 minutes of observation. Deep body temperature started to decrease 20 minutes after the onset of sweating, falling 0.3 degrees Celsius lower than subjects who weren’t given alcohol.

But it wasn’t just the physical effects on body temperature that worried the authors. Drinking alcohol, they concluded, leads to a whole body “hot” sensation that could push people to seek out cold environments despite the risk.

4) Cold air makes you sick

“Mom was wrong on this one — mostly,” notes the University of Rochester’s Health Encyclopedia.

“If you haven't been exposed to a virus, cold weather won't make any difference. There are over 200 viruses that can cause the common cold.”

Cool weather, however, does tend to push people indoors into what can be at times poorly ventilated spaces ripe for virus transmission.

Others have noted rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, replicates better at cooler temperatures, including in your nose.

A study published in February in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found cold exposure in the nasal cavity impairs the body’s natural antiviral immune responses.

So while cold air might not make you sick, it could lower your defences.

5) You lose half of your body heat through your head

Some have traced this one back to an old U.S. Army survival training manual, one of which claims “you can lose 40 to 45 per cent of body heat from an unprotected head.”

A 2008 fact-check report in BMJ, however, notes that depending on the size of one’s head and the hairline that insulates it, an average adult can lose between seven and 10 per cent of their body heat through their head, a far cry from the army manual's claim.

But other studies lend some credence to the idea that an insulated head can stave off core body cooling.

Thea Pretorius, a researcher at the University of Manitoba, conducted several studies to test how the human head loses heat in cold water, where heat is lost at a rate 25 times greater than in air due to water's density.

In some experiments, Pretorius dunked the study participants in cool water with a dry suit; in others, they simply wore a bathing suit. By partially or fully immersing the body and head, the researcher sought to understand the dynamics of recreational activities like scuba diving and long-distance swimming, as well as ship wreck survival and cold-water drowning scenarios.

One 2008 study Pretorius led found while a head makes up seven per cent of the body surface area, it’s submersion in a body-exposed scenario increased heat loss by 11 per cent.

After 45 minutes, however, submersing the head of body-insulated participants increased core cooling by 343 per cent. Those who had their body exposed and submersed their heads for the full 45 minutes saw core cooling increase by 56 per cent.

6) You can feel coming rain in your bones

Changes in the weather have long been thought to impact people’s health, with Hippocrates noting more than 2,400 years ago that “Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year…”

Contemporary studies have found more than three-quarters of those with arthritis believe their pain is affected by the weather, and often made worse by cold rain, humid conditions, or dropping atmospheric pressure.

One recent British study, dubbed “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain” and published in the npj Digital Medicine journal, tracked more than 13,000 people over a 15-month period using a GPS-enabled app to gauge how the weather provoked pain in people with long-term conditions like arthritis.

The app offered users the ability to track pain severity, fatigue, morning stiffness and sleep quality, among other categories.

The researchers found higher humidity, higher wind speed and lower barometric pressure increased the odds of a pain event. Relative humidity was found to have the strongest connection to a pain event, whereas temperature had the least effect. Precipitation was found to increase the odds of a pain event and time outside was not found to have an impact.

After weeding out prior beliefs, relative humidity remained associated with pain in all participants, while pain linked with atmospheric pressure only occurred in those who held strong prior beliefs.

7) Seek cover in a doorway during an earthquake (because it's B.C.)

Despite Aristotle’s 4th Century musing that earthquakes were caused by winds trapped in subterranean caves, there’s no such thing as “earthquake weather,” according to the US Geological Society (USGS).

The USGS says very low-pressure changes connected to major typhoons and hurricanes have been known to trigger fault slips, or “slow earthquakes,” that “may also play a role in triggering some damaging earthquakes.”

“However, the numbers are small and are not statistically significant,” adds the USGS.

While earthquakes are only tangentially connected to the weather, some of the myths surrounding them hold staying power and that matters in a place like B.C., where a major earthquake is expected to hit over the coming decades.

For example, many British Columbians likely remember being told to seek shelter in a doorway should an earthquake hit. That advice may have been prudent in old adobe homes in California. But today, it is out of date.

In fact, Public Safety Canada now suggests people avoid doorways in an earthquake as they can present a hazard.

“Doors may slam shut and cause injuries,” warns the agency.