Isn't it always cold in Michigan? Why the current weather situation is so unnerving

What is a polar vortex, anyway?

Pexels photo
Pexels photo

If you're not from a region that gets cold -- we mean really cold! -- and you don't have family that lives in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin or Vermont, then you might not really get it.

The Midwest, heck, any northern part of the country: Those spots get down into the freezing temperatures every winter, don't they? Aren't people up there prepared?

Yes and no. Let's talk about it.

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Metro Detroit, for example, is bracing for the most brutal stretch of cold weather the region has seen in a generation. A state of emergency was declared earlier this week -- and that's not just for Michigan, that's also for Illinois and Wisconsin. In Detroit, meteorologists were projecting Wednesday overnight lows around -15 degrees, with wind chills dropping to -40. This is not your typical winter situation around those parts. It's a public health risk. So yeah, safe to say, it gets cold every winter. But not like this.

A public health risk? Tell me more.

This really is winter’s sharpest bite in years. The weather situation moved past painful, into life-threatening territory Tuesday, prompting officials throughout the Midwest to take extraordinary measures to protect the homeless and other vulnerable people from the bitter cold. The U.S. Postal Service isn't delivering mail in parts of the Midwest on Wednesday because of the cold. Trash pickup has been delayed in neighborhoods across the region. A wind chill of -25 degrees can freeze skin within 15 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

And at least four deaths have been linked to this weather system, including a man struck and killed by a snowplow in the Chicago area, a young couple whose SUV struck another on a snowy road in northern Indiana, and a Milwaukee man found frozen to death in a garage.

Officials in large cities including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit are desperately trying to get the homeless off the streets.

Shelters, churches and city departments in Detroit worked together to help get vulnerable people out of the cold, offering the message to those who refused help that “you’re going to freeze or lose a limb,” said Terra DeFoe, a senior adviser to the Detroit mayor.


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Sounds like these areas are dealing with closures, as well?

Hundreds -- if not thousands, by now -- of public schools from North Dakota to Missouri to Michigan canceled classes Tuesday and Wednesday, with some already canceling for Thursday. So did several large universities, including Michigan State, marking only its seventh closure in school history (meaning, 164 years!)

Closing schools for an extended stretch isn’t an easy decision. For many families, this becomes a childcare issue -- or, "for some low-income students, the lunch they receive at school might be their most nutritious meal of the day,” a Minnesota Department of Education spokesman said.

The cold was even shutting down typical outdoor winter activities. A ski hill in the Minneapolis area said it would close through Wednesday. So did an ice castle attraction. The cold weather was even affecting beer deliveries, with a pair of western Wisconsin distributors saying they would delay or suspend shipments for fear that beer would freeze in their trucks.

Safe to say, the situation transcends one little snow day.

Got it. And what's up with this "polar vortex" term I keep hearing?

The bitter cold is the result of a split in the polar vortex that allowed temperatures to plunge much further south in North America than normal.

We'll back up -- ready for a quick weather lesson? The polar vortex is actually a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding both of the Earth’s poles. It always exists near the poles, but it weakens in the summer and strengthens in winter.

The term "vortex" refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that helps keep the colder air near the poles. Many times during winter in the northern hemisphere, the polar vortex will expand, sending cold air southward with the jet stream. This happens fairly regularly during wintertime and is often associated with large outbreaks of Arctic air in the United States. There was one that took place in January 2014, which was similar to many other cold outbreaks that have occurred in the past, including several notable colder outbreaks in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1989.

There are several things the polar vortex is not. Polar vortexes are not something new. The term "polar vortex" has only recently been popularized, bringing attention to a weather feature that's always been here. It's also not a feature that exists at the Earth’s surface. Weather forecasters examine the polar vortex by looking at conditions tens of thousands of feet up in the atmosphere; however, when we feel extremely cold air from the Arctic regions at Earth’s surface, it is sometimes associated with the polar vortex. This is not confined to the United States.

Portions of Europe and Asia also experience cold surges connected to the polar vortex. By itself, the only danger to humans is the magnitude of how cold temperatures will get when the polar vortex expands, sending Arctic air southward into areas that are not typically that cold.

So the next time you hear about this cold snap, maybe it'll make a little more sense. It's not just another week in the Midwest -- it's pretty dangerous. And if you don't have to worry about it, be grateful!

With information, facts and figures from WDIV and the Associated Press.

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