RHODE ISLAND — While the Ocean State has endured more snowfall and lower temperatures than average this past month, other parts of the country are struggling to weather bitter cold conditions.
The polar vortex, a stream of arctic air that has now extended itself far beyond its normal circulation area over the North Pole, has enveloped much of the central United States. According to the National Weather Service, this has led to plummeting temperatures in the region — as much as 20 to 40 degrees below normal.
The wavy polar vortex we are now experiencing, as opposed to a stable polar vortex that keeps arctic temperatures at bay, is due to a weakened jet stream. According to meteorologists and climate scientists, this is brought on by narrowing temperature differences between the warmer mid-latitudes and the polar region.
Southern New England has been placed under a winter storm watch, meaning there’s potential of snow accumulation of 4 to 8 inches during the latter half of this week. Similar snow accumulation and cold temperatures in southern states, like Texas, however, have left millions of people without power and caused hundreds of motor vehicle accidents.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that nearly three quarters of the lower 48 states are covered in snow, according to daily snow analysis from their office of weather prediction. As of Tuesday morning, only three continental states — Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — were without snow.
Rhode Island has weathered more than a handful of below freezing days and multiple snowstorms in recent weeks — kicking off the first day of February under a blanket of white and receiving several more inches on Superbowl Sunday — but the Ocean State is much better equipped for this than other parts of the country.
During these first big storms of the year, Narragansett Public Works Director Michael DiCicco and South Kingstown Director of Public Works Jon Schock both reported minimal power outages in their communities, but these same conditions have wreaked havoc elsewhere in the country. At the moment, at least 3 million people are without power in Texas, according to Poweroutage.us, a website that tracks electricity outages.
Other parts of the country are suffering too, including Oregon and Kentucky, where there are over 100,000 reported power outages. Tens of thousands of outages are also being reported in Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio — all of which are falling under this irregular polar vortex wind pattern.
Frigid temperatures and the effects of windchill is something Rhode Islanders have become well acquainted with, but the National Weather Service is strongly emphasizing the importance of bundling up to avoid frostbite in places like Oklahoma.
For those who are going without power and heat during these unusually cold times, the National Weather Service has been putting out advice to keep people warm. Closing blinds and curtains and closing room doors can help contain heat, and stuffing towels in the cracks under doors can help keep the warmth in, but those without power are also instructed to stay hydrated and eat energy-rich foods.
Advisories have also been sent out regarding black ice and dangerous roadway conditions, which much of the country usually never has to worry about.
Surprisingly, the polar vortex has touched down in the heartland just a month after record breaking warm temperatures were experienced all over the globe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this past January was the seventh-warmest January on record. In the United States alone, last month was the ninth-warmest January in the 142-year climate record.
Though the polar vortex has extended further below its normal circulation before in the past, climate scientists believe more extreme results are due to warming temperatures in the arctic and across the globe.
According to UC Davis Associate Professor of regional climate modeling, Paul Ullrich, future climate change will likely further weaken the polar jet stream, bringing rise to more extreme and unusual weather patterns.