Alright, what the heck is the “Polar Vortex?” Is it something brand new that nature created to cause misery for millions of Americans? Actually the term “Polar Vortex” has been known to meteorologists for years. The “Polar Vortex” usually sits right over the North Pole (there is one over the South Pole also) and rotates West to East. The vortex itself stayed put but it spun an arm, like a spoke on a wheel, down through Canada into the United States. The Jet Stream position was instrumental in acting like a funnel allowing that bitter cold air to move much farther south than is usually the case.
The question on a lot of people’s mind is: Why didn’t the Pacific Northwest feel the punch from the “Polar Vortex” like so much of the Eastern and Southern regions of the country? The answer is the Jet Stream prevented it. The how is what is so interesting. We had our coldest weather earlier in December and a significant snow that accumulated quite a few inches even down to the valley floor.
The shaded “arch” shape with blue arrows over the West is the High Pressure Ridge that protected us from approaching storms. The shaded area to the East with blue arrows runs down the east slopes of the Rocky Mountains and then sweeps to the northeast.The bitter cold Arctic air was forced down from the Arctic through central Canada as far south and east as Florida.
The bitter cold temperatures, snow, and ice caused major closures in the East including schools and businesses while we sat in clouds and fog without our usual rainfall. According to “The Guardian” the bill for the cold outbreak for all of the states impacted by the storm came to $5 Billion and the airline industry lost $50 million to $100 million due to cancelled flights.
This Reuters news story filed January 30, 2014 shows just how widespread the brutal Arctic outbreak was and the chaos it caused. At least seven people were killed in Atlanta as a result of the storm’s fury. Kasim Reed, the Mayor of Atlanta, has been harshly attacked for his response to the storm that resulted in thousands of school children being trapped in their schools overnight. Some of those schools didn’t have sufficient supplies to adequately care for the children’s needs for the overnight stay. There were also students trapped in school busses that were caught in the storm and stuck there overnight. At a news conference Mayor Reed said: “During the day, we have a million to 1.2 million people in this city and all these people were out in very bad weather. It hampered our ability to get our equipment on the ground and to prepare our roads for that.” He continued “The error-and we have shared responsibility for the error- was letting everybody out at once.” Late on Tuesday January 28th the Mayor called the storm “unexpected” and that caused quite a stir with meteorologists. J. Marshall Shepherd, President of the American Meteorological Society, said that the Atlanta weather forecast was good. The National Weather Service meteorologists and the local Atlanta TV meteorologists were all emphasizing the potential severity of the storm well before it reached Atlanta. The storm produced 2.6 inches of snow which is the 20th heaviest snowfall ever recorded in Atlanta. The snow was a serious problem, but the ice that formed on the roadways presented a much greater problem.
The city of Chicago, Illinois is much more used to winter storms and cold, but this outbreak dropped temperatures below zero for 37 consecutive hours with wind chill temperatures as low as -42 degrees. Water pipes were bursting all over the city including a Cook County courthouse where the lobby was flooded badly enough to force closure of the building. Schools were closed Monday January 27th and Tuesday January 28th due to the frigid conditions. That all happened in a city that usually just shrugs off the Winter cold.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we have occasional snow or ice storms and outbreaks of cold Arctic air. You should be prepared for this kind of Winter weather. Make sure your car has at least a half of a tank of gas in it just in case you do get stranded out on the road. Having a set of tire chains make driving on snow covered roads much safer. Carry a blanket, first aid kit, an ice scraper for the windows, and make sure your car has been winterized (battery check, antifreeze, window washer fluid, etc.). I have an old habit I picked up years ago where I grew up in Rochester, New York which is snow county. I keep a snow shovel in the back of my station wagon. It will allow you to dig out your vehicle should you end up in a snowbank or off the side of the road. The clay type kitty litter will help your tires get traction when you get stuck in snow or on ice. Dumping it behind and in front of the tires can do the trick. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged. Having a plug-in car charger can be a life saver if you are stranded. The most important thing is to think before you act. We have plenty of Winter left yet so there is plenty of time for a storm to wander our way.
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