While Winter Storm Saturn probably won’t pile the snow as high as Nemo did last month, the slushier, wetter precipitation that's scheduled to fall across much of the Northeast carries its own special risk: heart attacks.
Saturn is predicted to bring a lot of especially wet snow, which is heavier than soft, fluffy flakes.
The weight of an inch (or three) of snow can vary depending on the snow-water equivalent measurement, which is how much water you would get if the entire snowpack suddenly melted. As Oregon’s Natural Resources Conservation Service explains, if you take 36 inches of powdery snow at 10 percent snow water density and magically zap it into water, you’d get a pool of water just 3.6 inches deep. The wetter the snow, the heavier each inch is.
Heavy, wet snow is harder for snowblowers to handle, so many residents in Saturn’s path may find themselves out on the sidewalk or in the driveway with shovel in hand. A 1995 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that snow shoveling stressed the hearts of men about as much as running hard on a treadmill. Cold temperatures also cause blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow at the same time that the intense physical exertion of shoveling places heavy demands on the heart. For many people, especially the elderly, struggling with that heavy snow can put their hearts in danger.
“It is taxing their bodies and their hearts,” Illinois cardiologist David Marmor told the Associated Press. “People are really testing their limits, and if they’re already at high risk, they are better off paying the kid across the street to do it.”
Scientists have documented a rise in deaths from heart conditions in the weeks following intense snowstorms. In a 1979 study published in The Lancet, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control looked at death certificates in eastern Massachusetts before, during and after six separate blizzards between 1974 and 1978.
Deaths from ischemic heart disease -- characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart -- jumped during the blizzard week, more so in men than in women, the study found.
Heart disease deaths also “increased for eight days after a snowstorm, suggesting that the effect was related to activities such as snow shoveling rather than the storm itself,” the authors wrote.
Hospitals in the U.S. treat about 11,500 medical emergencies and injuries attributed to snow shoveling each year, according to a 2011 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine that examined data from 100 emergency rooms from 1990 to 2006. Most of the injuries came from falls or muscle strains, but nearly 7 percent of snow shoveling-related injuries were cardiac events.
Heavier snow is also more likely to cause electricity outages by taking out tree branches near power lines. This week’s storm is also accompanied by strong winds that could exacerbate the problem.
For those with healthy hearts who are looking to make an extra buck, there may be some opportunities in your city to work as a temporary snow shoveler. New York City brings on extra workers during snow events that overtax the Sanitation Department. Pay is $12 an hour, or $18 an hour for overtime. If you’re healthy and eligible to work in the U.S., you can preregister as a snow removal worker at any New York City Sanitation garage.
Roxanne has liked science ever since she started watching "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on Saturday mornings over a bowl of sucrotic O's. She especially likes writing about...