Be Prepared: Extreme Cold Can Snap Steel Electrical Poles

With temps in some parts of Wyo to hit 40 below zero, it's critical to be prepared. When a steel electrical pole snapped in Williston, North Dakota three years ago, all 35,000 residents lost electricity.

Renée Jean

December 19, 20225 min read

Steel pole 12 19 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter

With an Arctic blast headed to the Cowboy State, it’s not going to be safe for man nor beast outside. Extreme cold also isn’t that easy on things like car batteries or steel electrical poles.

Cold steel is often name-dropped in mystery and crime novels as somehow wicked and suspenseful. But in the real world, steel is a wimp when it comes to extremely cold weather. 

As its individual molecules lose mobility, the metal becomes more brittle. If it gets cold enough, it can snap without warning.

That happened a couple of years ago in nearby North Dakota in the Williston area. In 2019, an Arctic thumbprint settled over the Great Plains, dropping the thermometer to minus 43 degrees, causing a steel pole to fracture right at its base. 

It was lights out not only for the pole, but a large portion of Williston, then a town of around 35,000.

Coldest In Wyoming Easily Beats -43

Wyoming, as it turns out, is not above such cold temperatures. 

Meteorologist Don Day said the coldest temperature recorded in the Cowboy State is minus 63 at Moran, north of Jackson, set Feb. 9, 1933.

While there’s another potential record of 66 degrees, that’s not been officially verified, Day said, and there are some questions about it.

Typically, those kinds of lows are recorded in isolated mountain valleys in mid-winter.

“Getting that cold on the plains is a little more difficult,” Day said. “Having temperatures go 30 or 40 below in Wyoming doesn’t happen every winter. But at the same time, it’s not uncommon.”

Not-So-Distant Cold Snap

In fact, there was a cold snap in February 2021 similar to what’s expected to hit the state this week, with lows of minus 24 predicted to hit the state overnight Thursday, Day said.

Most of Wyoming, however, is at a higher elevation than surrounding Plains states, Day said. Wyoming’s prairies and plains are sitting at higher elevations than Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and even Colorado. 

“What will happen is, we’ll have these arctic air masses move into Wyoming, but once the Arctic airmass begins to move, Wyoming is sort of the first to warm up,” Day said. “The Arctic air that’s deep enough to get into here moves out.”

Not Lingering

Once the cold air gets pushed out into the lower elevation prairies, it tends to stick around for a longer period of time.

“In the Dakotas you can just persistently stay cold for weeks,” Day said. “But our high elevation kind of spares us somewhat from prolonged Arctic spells that go on for days or weeks. So, we do see episodes of severe cold, but they don’t tend to be as long lasting.”

That probably also helps protect steel poles and beams in the Cowboy State, which would need a prolonged exposure to ultra cold temperature to be at risk.

“It’s called cold soaking,” Day said. “You know if you cold soak anything, whether it is plastic or metal, wood, and you soak it in the cold air, that’s going to lead to fatigue in things where you could have failure for sure.”

Cold Steel Failures Have Happened in Wyoming

But steel failures have happened in the Cowboy State, Day added. In fact, it has even happened to him.

“We were snowmobiling up west of Laramie at our cabin, and I had a snowmobile that sat outside and it was it got down to, like, 44 below zero,” Day recalled. “I went outside to try to move the snowmobile so it wouldn’t freeze to the ground.”

When he tried to pick up the back of it, however, the metal bar snapped off in his hands.

Check Car Batteries Now

What’s probably more at risk, Day said, are car batteries. A weak or old battery just won’t stand up to the kind of cold temperatures that are expected this week.

“I can guarantee this will happen to folks Thursday or Friday morning,” he said. “It’s a really good idea before the storm starts to check your battery levels. I mean, if your batteries are four or five years old, you’ll find out really quick if you don’t have a place to shelter your car like a garage. 

“Starting your car Thursday or Friday morning could be difficult in some areas.”

Day recommends taking cars into a mechanic or car parts store to test the voltage on the car battery to make sure it’s strong enough.

What to Remember if Power Goes Out

Wyoming power poles are probably safe during the upcoming cold spell, Day said. It’s more usually high wind and weather events like snow or ice storms that lead to power outages.

In the event of a power outage during a cold snap, it’s particularly important not to use gas-powered generators indoors. These can give off odorless, colorless carbon monoxide gas, which can be fatal if it builds up too much inside an enclosed space.

Gas ranges, charcoal grills and the like can also generate such fumes. 

If you are using a propane heater indoors, make sure it’s specially designed for that purpose, and make sure your carbon monoxide detectors are working.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter