Frigid temperatures are expected to hit two-thirds of the mainland U.S. this week as a powerful storm system races eastward. The timing couldn’t be worse, right before the holidays, when many Americans plan to travel. Who travel – and even just being outdoors in some of the hardest hit regions – can become treacherous as the relentless cold blankets the land.
“There’s no better way to kick off the official start of astronomical winter than with numerous winter weather hazards affecting a majority of the nation,” a National Weather Service (NWS) forecast said early Wednesday. This morning, the NWS updated its forecast to warn of “widespread disruptive and potentially crippling impacts across the central and eastern United States.”
“What better way to kick off the official start of astronomical winter than with numerous winter weather hazards affecting a majority of the nation”
The main culprit behind the holiday craziness is an extremely cold air mass coming in from the Arctic. That heralds circumstances that are surprisingly similar to the legendary ‘Great Blizzard of 1978’, experts say The edge. Fortunately, forecasters can now provide more accurate warnings much sooner than they did in the 1970s. Hopefully that will give people enough time to prepare and keep themselves safe. This storm system packs a number of punches — from rapidly dropping temperatures to dangerous wind, snow, and ice.
“You probably won’t see another storm like that for the next 25 years,” said Jonathan Martin, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The edge. “It’s really intense and in some locations the effects will be extraordinary.”
Why is the US facing a record-breaking cold air mass? Well, the sun set on the North Pole on September 21. The Arctic is in the dead of its months-long winter darkness. Since there is no sun to warm the air, Martin explains: “All the air can do is cool down, because it is a night that lasts 24 hours. This allows you to generate exceptionally cold air masses at this time of year.”
That cold air mass was able to lift south thanks to a nodding jet stream, which is actually a narrow band high in the atmosphere of strong winds blowing from west to east. “The jet stream is essentially doing what you could call a rollercoaster ride. It basically picks up that cold air mass from western parts of Canada and the Arctic and pushes it almost straight south over the Great Plains and Great Lakes,” Greg Carbin, chief of the Forecast Operations Branch of the NOAA Weather Prediction Center, tells SELF. The edge.
The jet stream pattern we see now is very similar to that of 1978. That year’s “big blizzard” in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region drained hundreds of thousands of homes from power and heat and killed more than 70 people. “This once-in-a-lifetime storm will always be the yardstick by which to judge the severity of all future winter storms that will hit this region,” the National Weather Service website said.
Rapid drops in temperature and devastating winds were features of that storm and are now the main concern for forecasters. Across the central High Plains, temperatures have dropped some 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of hours as the leading edge of that cold air mass, the cold front, advances. Yesterday, the temperature in Laramie, Wyoming, plummeted from 27 degrees to 3 degrees in just 15 minutes. The rapid drop in temperature increases the risk of sudden icy formation on streets and roads, particularly in places that are expected to start raining before the cold sets in. Several dozen daily temperature records could be set in the coming days, according to Carbin.
Several dozen daily temperature records may be set in the coming days
The sharp temperature contrast between the cold front and the warmer air it encounters is also the perfect recipe for an intensifying cyclone with fierce storms. The storm is expected to intensify quickly enough to be considered a “bomb cyclone,” meaning that atmospheric pressure at the center of a storm drops by at least 24 millibars over a 24-hour period. A cyclone is another term for a low pressure system and lower pressure leads to stronger storms.
Wind gusts with this storm system are expected to reach over 60 miles per hour. That is a dangerous combination with even moderate snowfall. Those blizzards can knock out power and make travel impossible ahead of the holiday weekend. And even weaker storms make it feel even icy outside. Chills down to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit are possible in parts of the Great Plains for the rest of the week. Without taking precautions, exposure to wind chill this bad can cause frostbite in less than five minutes, according to the NWS. More than 30 states have wind chill warnings, watches and advisories as of today.
“The scale of the storm itself is definitely much larger than your typical nor’easter or Midwest blizzard,” said Andrea Lopez Lang, an associate professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at the University at Albany. She already expects scientists to base their research on the dynamics of this cyclone. The conditions surrounding this storm, she says, are “a textbook example of how to make storms intensify.”