Polar vortex breaks records for cold, snow; departing this week


COLUMBUS (Oh.) — An expansive arctic outbreak spilled into the midsection of the country in early February and only now is loosening its frigid grip on the nation, which has been locked in a prolonged deep freeze.

Temperatures in Columbus were below freezing from Feb. 6 until Sunday afternoon (15 days). This was the longest stretch since Dec. 1989.

Twelve inches of snow have fallen since Feb. 1, more than the city measured all of last winter (11.7 inches), with snow flurries or accumulating snow falling on all but two days from Feb. 1 to Feb. 20.

The dangerous core of the brutally cold air that originated in Siberia in January and crossed the North Pole into Canada proved devastating and tragic for Texas residents. Power plants ill-equipped to handle extreme cold were unable to keep up with the huge demand, resulting in 4 million customers without electricity and heat. More than 60 people have died in the Midwest and South from a deadly combination of winter storms, power outages and carbon monoxide poisoning since the beginning of the extreme cold last week.

Natural gas pipelines froze, and coal and nuclear plants were also knocked offline during the historic cold wave back-to-back and snowstorms last week. Burst pipes caused by freezing and thawing created serious shortages of clean water for nearly 15 million Texas residents.

All power sources took hits. A drastic drop in natural gas and fuel production initiated rolling blackouts followed by a week without power as demand soared. The price of gas and utilities rose sharply, adding to the woes of Texas residents in search of energy, food and water due to the loss of energy production and widespread grid disruptions.

A Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) in early January initiated a weakening of the polar vortex, a whirling mass of frigid air at high altitudes 15 to 30 miles above Earth. The trigger was upward moving waves in the atmosphere that disturbed the vast vortex during January, sending lobes of Arctic air southward in stages.

Temperatures plunged to 50 below zero in northern North Dakota and Minnesota during the second week of February, as the gelid air expanded southward. The historic chill reached the Gulf of Mexico, covering the beaches around Galveston, Tex., with a light blanket of snow and accompanied by subzero wind chills–the first time wind chill advisories have been issued by National Weather Services offices in southern Texas and coastal Louisiana.

Near all-time record chill in Dallas-Fort Worth (-2 degrees) and Oklahoma City (-14 degrees) rivaled great polar outbreaks in February 1899 and December 1989. On the margin of the frigid, successive snowstorms belted the southern Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley with six to 12 inches of snow, and locally heavier totals, coupled with ice on the eastern edge from the northern Gulf states to the Mid-Atlantic region.

As the vortex weakens and retreats into southern Canada this week, a mild Pacific flow promises to offer considerable relief. High temperatures this past weekend soared to 74 degrees at Dallas-Fort Worth and 48 degrees at Bismarck, N.Dak. Sunday afternoon–a rise of nearly 50 degrees in just a few days.

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