Ecocentric

Arctic Blast: The Northern Air Mass Bringing Record-Breaking Cold to the U.S.

Today was cold for much of the U.S., but the next few days are going to get much, much worse. Why January is starting off with a shiver

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Jin Lee / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Pedestrians trudged to work in snowy New York on Jan. 3. It's only going to get worse as the cold moves in

How cold is much of the U.S. going to be in the days to come? Cold enough to discourage hardy fans of the Green Bay Packers—who have sold out 319 games in a row, dating back to 1983—from attending an NFL playoff game at Lambeau Field. Temperatures for Sunday afternoon’s wild-card matchup between the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers could be -18º F (-28º C) or even lower. That would rival the famous “Ice Bowl,” the 1967 NFL championship game between the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, which is believed to be the coldest game in NFL history. Even though Green Bay was just able to avoid a TV blackout of Sunday’s game—NFL rules state that a game must be sold out to be televised in the home team’s market—the last tickets were bought not by Packers fans, but by corporate partners. But can you blame Green Bay fans? Even Cheeseheads are subject to frostbite.

But Wisconsin won’t be the only place suffering through potentially record-breaking cold in the days to come. Dangerously cold temperatures will be hit the Northern Plains and the Upper Midwest this weekend and into next week, causing temperatures to fall below 0º F (-18º C), and in some places, reach -60º F (-51º C) with the wind chill. In Chicago, temperatures on Monday could threaten the all-time coldest daily high temperature in the city’s history: -11º F (-24º C), reached on Christmas Eve 1983 and Jan. 18, 1994. Detroit could see its all-time coldest daily high temperature record of -4º F (-20º C) tumble as well. That cold air will continue towards the East Coast in the following days, with temperatures in the single digits over the mid-Atlantic, and in the -10s and -20s in parts of New England by mid-week. Altogether this could be the coldest Arctic air mass to hit the middle of the country in more than 20 years, with temperatures as much as 40º F (22 º C) below normal in much of the country.

(PHOTOS: Snow Covers Northeast and Midwest as Storm Rages)

And whose fault is it that the eastern half of the U.S. is getting Mr. Freezed? As Andrew Freedman explains at Climate Central, you can blame Canada:

The cause of the Arctic outbreak can be traced to northeastern Canada and Greenland, where an area of high pressure and relatively mild temperatures is set to block the eastward progression of weather systems, like an offensive lineman protecting the quarterback from the other team.

The atmospheric blocking is forcing a section of the polar vortex to break off and move south, into the U.S. The polar vortex is an area of cold low pressure that typically circulates around the Arctic during the winter, spreading tentacles of cold southward into Europe, Asia, and North America at times. Except this time, it’s not a small section of the vortex, but what one forecaster, Ryan Maue of WeatherBELL Analytics, called “more like the whole enchilada” in a Twitter conversation on Thursday.

It’s worth noting that even as much of the U.S. shivers, temperatures in Greenland are just about normal—a reminder that while weather may be local, climate is global. And while the U.S. cold snap is historic in its own right, it’s going to feel that much colder because, quite simply, we’ve forgotten how freezing winter can be. While the U.S. as a whole has warmed by about 1.3º F (0.71º C)over the past 100 years, winter has seen the fastest warming. Winter nights across the country have warmed about 30% faster than nights over the whole year. Since 1912, the coldest states have warmed nearly twice as fast as the rest of the country. In a warming world, winter loses its sting.

But it won’t seem that way over the next few days—and that will be dangerous. Even with climate change, the U.S. still generally still sees more deaths from cold snaps than from extreme heat. For all the media attention that snow gets—looking at you, Weather Channel—extreme cold can be deadly, especially for the society’s most vulnerable. For them, a little global warming can’t come soon enough.

MORE: Button Up: Here’s the Coldest Place in the Universe
MORE: November Was Cold, But the Climate Keeps Warming

7 comments
RachelFryke
RachelFryke

"For them, a little global warming can’t come soon enough." 


Really?!?

doopy
doopy

I woke up this morning and it was -25F bellow with a wind chill of -45F I got up, started my car, went to church and then out for breakfast with my family, business as usual here in Minnesota. For us it is like this EVERY WINTER. Most winters it gets -35F bellow with a wind chill of -70F bellow and thats normal for northwestern Minnesota. So what is all the fuss!! I was born and raised in Minnesota and this is nothing new to me. So we get a little snow and some cold weather and everyone starts freaking out...Why??? This is just another day in minnesota for us. I live in the Northwest corner of the state, the COLDEST part of Minnesota and it just doesn't bother us. We dress warm, plug in our cars and still live a normal day just like everyone else. So let the frigid cold and all the snow come, I'll get out my "Arctic Cat Sled" and have a wonderful and fun day riding. Then go ice fishing on the lake later....Minnesotans are a tough and hardy people so bring it on!!!

RobertYoung1
RobertYoung1

By the way: does time have any "junior" editors? It's kind of funny seeing just-out-of-college kids being called "senior" editors.

RobertYoung1
RobertYoung1

While the coldest official temps in Greenland are generally in the minus-80's range, this is partly due to the fact that there are no internal weather stations on the central Greenland ice cap. Estimated temps there get colder than the coldest readings officially recorded. Just as satellite measurements found that Antarctica's "real" coldest spot was about -135F, so central Greenland likely would hit between -90F and -100F if they bothered to measure the temperature there.
 (Official weather readings must be taken from ground observations, but satellite data, which is not official according to the current powers-that-be that rely on outdated technology).

Yoshi
Yoshi

It's not too bad in Greenland compared to our midwest, right now. Interesting to note, too, that most of Greenland didn't get above freezing last year. Talk about needing a vacation!

Openminded1
Openminded1

That is why Florida is surpassing Ny in population. The same reason all the Canucks go to Arizona this time of year the temp in Phoenix today was 73 and the same in Miami another place the canucks run too. i live in Miami Beach over looking the beach 32 floors up and you can see miles of tourist and locals laying in the sun on the beach. Screw The north east and mid west this time of year.

ca_poor
ca_poor

@RobertYoung1  Who, exactly, are you talking about? Bryan Walsh isn't quite "just-out-of-college." In fact, after graduating from Princeton, Walsh had been with TIME for at least five years in Hong Kong before spending a year as Tokyo bureau chief for TIME—all of which took place before he was named senior writer over two years ago.