It’s always amusing when places that don’t usually expect it get a taste of what to us is a typical winter.
That was fully evident earlier this month when large swaths of the U.S. were hit hard by cold.
Suddenly U.S. schools and universities were closed and private businesses, including many in agriculture, were calling a temporary halt to operations. Government organizations, many just back at it following the U.S. federal shutdown, were forced to once again close their doors.
It’s one thing when it’s the southern U.S. Midwest, somewhere like Nebraska with an average daily high in January of 1 C, that suddenly gets smacked by -40 C. However, even nearby North Dakota decided to pull the pin and stay home.
Meanwhile, North of 49, it was largely business as usual, with a side order of bemused superiority. The Winnipeg Free Press and staff writer Kevin Rollason nailed the mood of the day, with a story featuring two photos.
The first was taken in Chicago which was enduring a -28 C blast. It depicted an individual bundled up so tightly about all you could determine was that they were human. A photo taken simultaneously in Winnipeg, where it was -34 C, featured a bare-faced gas jockey pumping fuel with a grin.
The headline put it best: “They call it a polar vortex. We call it home.”
Online, the mood wasn’t much different. My social media feeds featured, among other things, a headline from the Chicago Tribune declaring that metropolis to be colder than Mars, followed by the bland inquiry “First time?” There were also more than a few memes that parodied the Bane supervillain’s monologue from the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” reminding the Americans they “only adopted the cold.”
However, it’s easy to feel superior from our perch atop the efforts of our ancestors. We’re better able to manage around this sort of cold because we’ve encountered it more often and we’ve designed countless systems around it.
We all have a block heater in our vehicles. Many of us have dedicated winter tires of rubber compounds that maintain flexibility and grip in the most frigid of conditions. Even more personally we all own — or at least know enough that we should own — decent winter weather clothing.
Meantime, due to their citizens’ relative inexperience with temperatures such as these, the U.S. National Weather Service was forced to caution citizens to “avoid taking deep breaths” lest they freeze their delicate lung tissue.
Our American friends are no doubt going to be able to adapt too, should their future contain more of these sorts of icy polar blasts. And it would appear that’s going to be the case.
Despite plenty of comments about ‘whatever happened to global warming?’ amidst the chill — including one tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump entreating global warming to “Please come back fast, we need you!” — climate scientists assure us what the U.S. has just endured is likely actually an expression of that global warming.
It turns out that the polar vortex is, ordinarily, a very good thing for much of the world, when it’s functioning as it usually does. It’s a ‘whirlpool’ of cold winds that begins every winter, keeping the coldest air of the North Pole farther to the north, while maintaining more moderate temperatures to the south.
It’s when it breaks down, probably due to the effects of global warming and sea ice loss, and separated into multiple ‘pieces’ there’s trouble. Those pieces dip far farther south than ordinary, bringing with them much colder weather to areas unused to it and ill equipped to cope.
The future therefore looks like a world with shorter and warmer winters, punctuated with periods of bone-chilling cold. That could have a huge impact and is going to require a lot of planning to mitigate.
For example, one wonders just how well the often-praised U.S. interstate highway system will fare if it’s suddenly exposed every year to the same pothole-inducing freeze-thaw cycle as Manitoba roads.
Then there’s the simple fact that few things are actually designed for these sorts of conditions. During our recent cold snap, most equipment was clearly at the very limits of its operating ability.
On the agriculture front, it’s questionable just how some crops, like the Midwest winter wheat crop, for example, might fare if suddenly winter includes a shot of -30 C weather once or twice a season.
All told, it’s going to be a big challenge for our neighbours to the south, and no picnic for us either, if it’s going to be a more regular and prolonged occurrence.
It brings to mind the wise words of a local machinery dealer back home when Dad and I once showed up looking for parts.
“Y’know, I’d have less business if you guys stayed home in weather like this with your feet by the fire.”