January 31, 2019 —
A polar vortex is bringing life-threatening temperatures to the US, with 55 million Americans set to experience below-zero temperatures.
- Emergency declarations have been issued in three Midwestern states in response to the cold
- At least four deaths have been attributed to the extreme weather
- Donald Trump has called for global warming to “come back” in response to the cold
Governors in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan declared emergencies as temperatures plunged as low as -32 degrees Celsius in North Dakota, with wind chills as low as -52C in Minnesota. It was nearly that cold in Wisconsin and Illinois. A wind chill of -32C can freeze skin within 15 minutes, according to the National Weather Service. According to USA Today, at least 55 million Americans will experience below-zero temperatures as a part of the extreme cold.
The weather is the result of a split in the polar vortex that allowed temperatures to plunge much further south in North America than normal. The cold has prompted authorities in the southern state of Georgia to close government offices, shutter schools and cancel flights as fans began arriving for next week’s Super Bowl in Atlanta. The city is expected to reach temperatures below zero by Tuesday evening (local time).
A snowstorm is expected to bring “a couple of inches of snow” to the Deep South, with snow expected to fall in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski told USA Today.
The National Weather Service forecast for Wednesday night called for temperatures in Chicago as low as -33C, with wind chills to -50C. Detroit’s outlook was for Wednesday overnight lows around -26C, with wind chills dropping to -40C. According to US TV Network ABC, rail tracks were set on fire in Chicago to keep trains moving smoothly. “These are actually a public health risk and you need to treat it appropriately,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday. “They are life-threatening conditions and temperatures.”
Four deaths linked to extreme weather
At least four deaths were linked to the weather system, including a man struck and killed by a snow plough in the Chicago area, a young couple whose SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana and a Milwaukee man found frozen to death in a garage. Officials in large Midwestern cities including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit were desperately trying to get the homeless off the streets in response to the extreme temperature.
Minneapolis charities that operate warming places and shelters expanded hours and capacity, and ambulance crews treated all outside calls as being potentially life-threatening. MetroTransit said it wouldn’t remove people from buses if they were riding them simply to stay warm, and weren’t being disruptive. Cr Emanuel said Chicago was turning five buses into makeshift warming centres moving around the city, some with nurses aboard, to encourage the homeless to come in from the cold.
Hundreds of public schools from North Dakota to Missouri to Michigan cancelled classes on Tuesday, and some on Wednesday as well. So did several large universities. Native American tribes in the upper Midwest were doing what they could to help members in need with heating supplies. Many people on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas live in housing that’s decades old and in disrepair, or in emergency government housing left over from southern disasters such as hurricanes.
“They aren’t made for this (northern) country. The cold just goes right through them,” said Elliott Ward, the tribe’s emergency response manager. The cold weather was even affecting beer deliveries, with a pair of western Wisconsin distributors saying they would delay or suspend shipments for fear beer would freeze in their trucks.
The unusually frigid weather is attributed to sudden warming far above the North Pole. A blast of warm air from misplaced Moroccan heat last month made the normally super chilly air temperatures above the North Pole rapidly increase.
That split the polar vortex into pieces, which then started to wander, said Judah Cohen, a winter storm expert for Atmospheric Environmental Research. One of those polar vortex pieces is responsible for the subzero temperatures across the Midwest this week. While the US is in the grip of a chill that is likely to set records, Earth is still considerably warmer than it was 30 years ago and especially 100 years ago.
The lower 48 states make up only 1.6 per cent of the globe and five western states are warmer than normal. The Earth as a whole was 0.3C warmer than the 1979 to 2000 average on Tuesday, according to data from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer and NASA.
“This is simply an extreme weather event and not representative of global scale temperature trends,” said Northern Illinois University climate scientist Victor Gensini, who is in the midst of some of the worst subfreezing cold. “The exact opposite is happening in Australia right now.”