Brutal winter as polar vortex sweeps through US

Large parts of the US experienced unusually cold weather following the arrival of a polar vortex that sent temperatures in the Midwest as well as in the East Coast dipping between January and March. This was not the first time the country experienced such weather though it has been exceptionally brutal as the so-called vortex broken into two, bringing coldest conditions in decades to many cities. Large-scale transport disruptions were reported while many were confined to their homes in order to stay warm. Authorities also said at least 21 people have died as the cold snap bear down on the country.

Polar vortex as the name suggests is a band of strong winds that lived in the high Arctic. They are mostly formed during the winter and usually are locked in the Arctic region by cold air throughout the winter. Occasionally however, they could venture down south, causing the mercury to drop below freezing level in populated locations such as Canada and the US. Its movement can also be influenced by weather or waves of air. With the sun rising over the Arctic however, the vortex will eventually dissipate into nothing, providing some relief for those living on its path.

For the populace, the latest round of polar vortex had also caused major inconvenience as frigid cold weather descended into their cities and towns. Flights were cancelled or delayed at major airports including Chicago’s O’Hare International (ORD) while rivers also turned into ice, hampering water transportation in the city. As the temperature dipped to -30 degrees Celcius, emergency measures were taken to ensure that the public was adequately protected. Gas companies for instance asked residents to turn down their thermostats so that the demands for heating can be regulated. The public has also been advised to stay indoors to keep themselves warm. Additionally, the homeless people were also not forgotten as city authorities and volunteers set up warming centres for them. At least six such centres were set up in Chicago alone it became one of the most affected cities by the polar vortex.

There is still no clear reason on why the vortex was able to break though the formidable cold air that locked it in the Arctic though studies have been conducted in the past to identify possible factors. One of the factors that have cited by many scientists is climate change. While the studies conducted are by no means conclusive, scientists have pointed out that jet stream over Europe and North America are becoming wavier as the planet warms. As the stream interacts with the vortex, it also brought down temperatures further south. Scientists however cautioned that more studies would need to be conducted on this concept amid the higher possibility of such weather events happening in the future.

 

Following is a timeline of extreme cold in the US as well as GWS reports:

The adverse weather descended into the US between January and February, bringing together severe disruptions to large parts of the Midwest. GWS sent out at least 17 alerts during this period.

  • First alert by GWS on the adverse weather on 22 January
    • Winter storm warnings were issued for Iowa, Wisconsin, Madison, Milwaukee and the Chicago metropolitan area. Heavy snowfall and freezing rains were expected in the affected locations.
  • Second alert by GWS on the adverse weather on 27 January
    • Forecasters indicated that a severe snowstorm will hit the Midwest and Great Lakes till at least 31 January. Cities that were included in the alert were North Dakota, northern Illinois, South Dakota, Minnesota, Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh.
  • Subsequent alerts by GWS as flight disruptions grip Chicago’s main airport
    • Multiple alerts were sent out for users between 29-31 January as the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago suffered from days of flight cancellations and delays. Amtrak also cancelled train services to and from Chicago during the same period.
  • Alert issued for wintry conditions on 6 February

Safeture continued its reporting on the cold weather as another round of cold snap was expected in Midwest and Northeast of the US on 6 February.

Chan Hoi Cheong

GWS Analyst
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur