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2014 Science News: Cold Weather

Cold Snap, polar vortex, and snow, oh my!


Polar Vortex, NASA/JPL

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The Arctic Invasion

Between the cold snap and polar vortex in January and November’s record-breaking snow in Buffalo, NY—a place all too familiar with snow—2014 was, by all accounts, frosty. The polar vortex is nothing new, but, like so many things, we only take notice when it knocks on our door. The polar vortex is an air system that circulates in a counter-clockwise rotation in the upper levels over the north pole. During the first week of Jan. 2014, a high pressure system caused part of the vortex to “kink,“ and an arm of the once-circular mass of cold air reached south. The most intense cold occurred Monday Jan. 6 and Tues. Jan. 7, when almost 50 record low temperatures were recorded from Flint, Mich. (-14°F), to Asheville, N.C. (-1°F), to Tulsa, Okla. (-2°F). In Chicago, temperatures dropped to a record -16°F, causing doors on the “L“ to freeze open, delaying commuters. On Jan. 9, the partially frozen U.S. Niagara falls created a beautiful and icy spectacle.

In the South, winter storms Kronos, Leon, and Pax brought communities to a standstill in January and February. With Kronos came snow and sleet in Louisiana and Florida, while Leon gifted Alabama and Georgia with a “commuter apocalypse“ that left gridlocked highways, abandoned cars, and stranded schoolchildren in its wake. Finally, there was Pax which, belying its name, wreaked icy havoc in Georgia and South Carolina, closing businesses and schools in February.

No Winter Here

The exception to this arctic invasion was the drought-stricken West, where San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles all recorded their warmest and driest January ever. Alaska, too, was oddly warm, with the third warmest January in almost 100 years.

The Summer that Wasn't

But then, the country thawed and summer came. Sort of. Across much of the U.S., the “summer“ of 2014 was cooler than normal, continuing the colder weather patterns that ushered in the new year.

Have Snow, Bring Shovel

Heading into winter 2014-15, things are again looking icy, with early and heavy snowfall in the Northeast and Midwest. At least 13 deaths are blamed on lake-effect snow in Buffalo, New York, where at least 7 ft of snow smothered the city Nov. 17-21. The snowfall was so monumental, it impressed even the hardiest. Facing 220,000 tons of snow in the Ralph Wilson stadium, the Buffalo Bills football franchise tweeted an offer to fans: “Want to help clear the Ralph? We're looking for snow shovelers. Pay is $10/hour + game tickets. Call 716-636-4840 for details.“ But with highway closures and a driving ban, it was a creative ploy that didn’t pan out; the Bills had to move their game to Detroit.

by Catherine McNiff
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