Predicting and planning for the next polar vortex?
By Duggan Flanakin
web posted March 1, 2021
Americans know a lot about planning for hurricanes, and about voluntary and mandatory evacuations. They also know that some hurricanes bring major damage to urban and rural areas, and that sometimes (Katrina comes to mind) people’s failure to heed calls to “get outta Dodge” can have disastrous results.
The National Weather Service website explains, whenever a tropical storm forms in the Atlantic or eastern North Pacific [or central North Pacific], the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center issues tropical cyclone advisories at least every six hours. Once a hurricane watch or warning is issued, the advisories come every three hours.
When evacuation orders are issued, there are always a few who opt to “ride out the storm,” for fun and excitement, or fearing the theft of their property more than their possible loss of life. Even then, rescue teams risk their lives in dangerous weather to save those losing their crazy gambles with storms.
On January 11, National Geographic warned, “The polar vortex is coming – raising the odds for intense winter weather,” caused by a sudden major rise in temperatures in the stratosphere above Siberia. This polar vortex “could mean frigid winter weather pummeling the U.S. Midwest and Northeast and the mid-latitude regions of Europe.” Not a word about intense cold in the American southwest.
On January 28, NOAA’s Climate.gov website announced, “The POLAR VORTEX is coming!!!!!” NOAA explained that the impetus for this extremely rare event was a “sudden stratospheric warming” [SSW] that occurred on January 5. Such an event happens about six times per decade, NOAA says.
NOAA acknowledged that parts of Europe had already seen very cold weather in the north and stormy weather in the south, but gave no specific warning that disaster was imminent in any specific parts of the United States.
Shortly thereafter, meteorologist Joe Bastardi predicted in his Twitter feed that “Texas is going to be tested on so many levels” by the coming storm. He acknowledged that NOAA’s own forecasting model prompted comparisons to the disastrous 1899 polar vortex incident that dropped temperatures below zero in every U.S. state.
On February 3, Jennifer Gray at CNN announced, “It’s about to get so cold that boiling water will flash freeze, frostbite could occur within 30 minutes, and it will become a shock to the system for even those who are used to the toughest winters.” She went on to say “the coldest air of the season will be diving south, not leaving anyone out. Every single state in the U.S. – including Hawaii – will reach below freezing temperatures on Monday morning” [February 8].
The next day, Austin’s KXAN-TV issued its own “First Warning: Extended Arctic blast coming to Texas.” Emmy-winning meteorologist David Yeomans noted that his actual first warning had come a month earlier – the day the SSW event had occurred.
Yeomans said the cold front would likely slam into Texas by February 9, “cooling us off dramatically by the middle of next week.” While “this pattern may last for an extended amount of time,” Yeomans predicted just “4 to 5 days where local temperatures will remain in the 30s and 40s into Valentine’s Day weekend.” He concluded that, while “some precipitation appears possible … it is too soon for specifics on this Arctic outbreak and potential winter storm.”
But he did not foresee the impending disaster; nor did most others in the field. And yet actual lowest temperatures in Austin reached 9o F (-13 C) – the lowest in 32 years and just the fifth single-digit low in a century. Not until Valentine’s Day did the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) declare an “energy emergency alert three” that mandated rolling outages.
Texans were clearly not prepared by their federal, state or local governments, or even their local news media outlets, let alone ERCOT, for the magnitude of this polar storm – or for the devastation it could and did cause. People get a warning to prepare prior to hurricanes. But this time there was no urgent demand that people lay in food, turn off or otherwise secure water pipes against a deep freeze, expect water cutoffs, plan for lengthy power and heating outages, and be ready for horrific driving conditions.
Lone Star State public officials are getting slammed for their lack of foresight. But Texans are not alone in this disaster. Over 100,000 Oregonians went all week without electric power days after a snow and ice storm swept through that region. Portland General Electric (PGE) spokesperson Dale Goodman, noted that over 2,000 power lines were still down two days after the storm. “These are the most dangerous conditions we’ve ever seen in the history of PGE,” he lamented.
This is after PGE had worked tirelessly to restore power for over half a million other customers who’d been affected by the polar storm. As in Texas and elsewhere, people there died from carbon monoxide poisoning, food spoiled, and many of the 200,000 Oregon customers who lost service were told they may not get their Internet back for weeks. Oregon is much smaller than Texas, with fewer people and colder weather. Portland’s average February temperature is 10o F cooler than Austin’s.
In the aftermath of this massive storm – which also caused major power outages in Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia – there will be plenty of time to evaluate where forecasts went wrong, assess blame, and determine what damages can and cannot be recovered. Job one right now, however, should be to get people back into their homes, their jobs, their hospitals and their lives. (One Austin hospital lost power and water.) Blame-throwing only gets in the way of human rescue.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for an investigation of ERCOT, acknowledging that the power grid curators have been “anything but reliable” over the previous 48 hours. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather,” he added. “This is unacceptable.” Well, DUH! But they aren’t the only guilty parties.
Worst of all, the nightmare is far from over. The damages are widespread, and it will be some time before anyone can calculate the actual costs – and the avoidable costs – of this supposedly rare event. Will Texas shrug its shoulders and simply say, “This can’t possibly happen again.” Will Oregonians? Will the entire nation, which will suffer the effects of this loss of energy production and economic vitality in Texas?
Any investigation must begin with the fact that hardly anyone paid attention to warnings that this storm could have major impacts. Perhaps big winter storms need names, like hurricanes do, so that they stand out and can compete with partisan political bickering. Maybe we need a thorough review of all disaster preparedness, including spring floods, summer fires, and summer-autumn hurricanes and tropical storms.
We certainly need better prediction, prevention and preparation – including thinning overgrown forests and clearing out dead, diseased and intensely flammable trees.
Will the American people get this kind of response from their elected officials – or from those charged with direct oversight of our land, water and infrastructure, and increasingly our lives and livelihoods? Or will we spend the next two, four or ten years bickering over trivial matters, like a modern Nero fiddling as our nation falls apart and becomes even easier pickings for Mother Nature and predator nations?
We’ve spent billions on wind turbines and solar panels that were useless when people most needed electricity, instead of on winterizing baseload power generation. We’ve spent billions on “climate crisis” models and fear-mongering – but can’t seem to get winter storm forecasts and warnings right. Too many are paying with their lives. When will we get it right?
Duggan Flanakin is director of policy research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org)