Since the earliest days of 2014, millions have been made aware of a “polar vortex” being the cause of extremely low temperatures this season. Though the first blast of freezing air that appeared in the first weeks of January came and went fairly quickly, it managed to do a lot of damage in the southern and eastern parts of the U.S.
Some laughed at the phrase “polar vortex,” thinking it sounded like something straight out of a science fiction movie. However, after the first few days of temperatures plunging below freezing, the vortex was looked upon with more respect and alarm.
What is a polar vortex? The simplest explanation is that a large pocket of freezing air from the arctic has moved down to settle over the United States.The pocket of freezing air sits over the arctic every winter, and at times factors in the weather, such as high pressure systems, push it further south to visit more regions in the northern hemisphere. This year was unusual because the arctic air doesn’t usually go far enough to reach the United States.
Some relate this incident to global warming. The initial reaction of the public has been that the polar vortex completely disproves the existence of global warming, but some scientists say differently. They say that the unusually high pressures in the arctic are actually caused by global warming. There is no concrete evidence to prove either side of the argument.
This drastic change in the weather and its effects on the nation were considered a national crisis. Even for those who do not keep up with the latest news, it was clear that the vortex had taken hold. The coldest air in twenty years covered the nation, as well as wind chills 30 degrees below freezing. Travelling conditions were slippery. Schools were closed for weeks at a time. Snow accompanied the freezing air in many states, even those who have rarely seen snow in many years. Atlanta, Georgia, for example, was completely unprepared for even the few inches of snow that covered the area.
Between January 6 and 7, records for cold temperatures were broken in Alabama, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and several other states. West Virginia also saw temperatures dropping below record lows of the past two decades. Take Morgantown for example, where the record low of -4 degrees Fahrenheit has been replaced by -7 degrees.
At least 20 deaths across the nation were blamed on exposure to the frigid temperatures, particularly in Illinois, Indiana, and surrounding areas. Shelters were opened to allow the public to wait out the cold, which saved many lives.
After days of anxious waiting, temperatures finally rose to normal for January, and the public breathed a sigh of relief.
Now that the first blast of cold air has left, do we have anything left to worry about? Unfortunately, yes – the polar vortex is still there, and factors in the weather may shift it to cover the U.S. again. The danger will only pass when the high pressure in the arctic dissipates, and at that point the freezing air will move back up into the arctic.