Why Angelenos Melt Down in Cold Weather

This week’s cold wave wouldn’t cause a ripple in the East, so why is it stressing out Los Angeles? Scientists say cold weather in L.A. feels different than in other parts of the country

“Oh my God, can you believe how &@**! cold it is?”

It’s officially the time of year Angelenos gripe incessantly about the weather, post pictures of morning frost on their front lawns, complain about not having ice scrapers, and swear that nobody has ever experienced a cold like the cold in Los Angeles right now. Meanwhile, East Coast and Midwest natives living in L.A. make fun of those who complain about L.A. cold. And those anticipating getting made fun of test out arguments about how “cold in the desert is different than cold in high humidity areas.”

How cold is it, really? While the National Weather Service has declared a frost advisory for several parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, it’s nothing like the cross-country blizzards or the crippling snow dumps on the Great Plains. In downtown Los Angeles, for instance, the average temperature this December has been 2.5 degrees below the average for the month historically—55.8 degrees as compared to 58.3 degrees.

On Dec. 14, the coldest day downtown this month, the temperature plummeted to 43 degrees. It was 30 degrees on the coldest-ever Dec. 14 in downtown L.A.—on Dec. 14, 1878. So, cold but not crazy cold.

Even so, from the South Bay to the Valley and the West Side to the East Side, the specter of somewhat unseasonably cold weather is haunting Los Angeles. Pets are being fitted for puffer vests, potted succulents rescued, and wardrobes rummaged for makeshift winter ensembles.

This week, the Twitter account Americana at Brand Memes posted a “guide to understanding how Los Angeles feels cold weather” that suggests Angelenos feel like the temperature is 20 degrees colder than the mercury indicates.

Twitter user Mira Gonzalez neatly captured the prevailing hyperbole with a message on Monday that reads, “it is 46 degrees in los angeles and i am literally so cold i can’t function as a human being.”

The effect is not confined to native Angelenos. A recent L.A. transplant who braved years of frosty winters back East tweeted on Wednesday that 50 degrees Fahrenheit here “is like your flesh is being peeled off the bone with icicle picks and there’s a breeze.”

So what’s the deal—why do L.A. people seem to shrivel up like a mail-order plant whenever the temperature dips below 65 degrees? What explains the apparent disparity between what the Fahrenheit scale reads and what it feels like to people who live here? 

Ryan Kittell, a meteorologist with the Los Angeles/Oxnard Weather Forecast Office of the National Weather Service, offers Crxdaa few theories.

L.A.’s near-year-round warmth can make people who live here fussy about the occasional cold snap, says Kittell, a 17-year climate forecaster educated at UCLA. Annually, the temperature in L.A. rarely drops below 42°F or rises above 93°F.  

“It doesn’t take people from outside Southern California long to acclimate to the weather here and start complaining when it gets moderately cold,” Kittell says. “You get used to things quickly and when things are out of the ordinary it’s something you definitely notice.”

But Kittell says there are other factors at play. If you have ever put on a winter coat on a moderately frigid day in Los Angeles only to feel the cold sap warmth from the marrow of your bones, take heart. You’re not a wuss. According to Kittell, L.A.’s arid climate makes it very difficult for the body to retain heat during cold weather.

“When we have cold conditions here, they are also typically very dry, and that causes the heat and moisture from our skin to evaporate much more quickly, and so the body struggles to keep itself warm,” Kittell says.“Think about heat in the summertime in the Midwest or Southeast, where the conditions get so hot and humid that the body cannot cool itself down. The cold in the wintertime in Southern California has the opposite effect.”

If you ask meteorologists why temperatures in L.A. are slightly lower this season than they’ve been in years past, be prepared to listen to weatherspeak about offshore flow, high pressure streams moving in over the southwest, the jet steam moving north, and the storm that went through last weekend and dumped a lot of cold air behind it.

Those were among the factors that combined to make the last few days the coldest of the season—though a far cry from record-breaking cold. The temperature in L.A. will dip below 40 degrees a half dozen times during the course of a typical winter. On Wednesday, the coldest day of the current rainy season, the temperature was 43 degrees downtown. So, things could be a lot worse.

While Southern California shivered through another cold night on Wednesday, computer projections from the National Weather Service show warmer weather on the horizon, with high temps climbing back to the upper 60s and 70s in the second half of December.

“If people got through Wednesday morning okay, things are looking up for the next week,” Kittell says. And by Christmas, forecasters say, L.A.’s temperature should be back up to a positively balmy 70 degrees. 

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