Why Is It So Cold?

So Cold – But Why?

The biggest reason for the cold across the eastern and central US is a response to abnormal warmth in the western US, western Canada, and Alaska. The ‘Alaskan ridge’, or abnormal warmth several miles above eastern Alaska, Yukon, and the Pacific coast typically leads to an equal but opposite reaction to the east–known as a ‘trough’, or abnormal cold several miles above the eastern and central US. This ridge-trough pattern then proceeds to repeat and encircle the globe (think waves on the ocean), creating areas of abnormal warmth and coldness throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Temperature Abnormalities

On average, these temperature abnormalities above the surface are reflected at surface level thanks to the storm track arcing over the ridge and under the trough. Low pressure going through Alaska or western Canada pulls warmer air north into Alaska and prevents much rain from reaching south to California. The storm track then runs southeast through Alberta (hence the name ‘Alberta Clipper’ for systems following the track), into the Plains, and close to the East Coast pulling down cold air dislodged from its formation area in northern Canada/Alaska. To see the effect of removing that cold air, consider that Fairbanks, Alaska has highs of around 15 degrees and no sub-zero lows forecast this week. Compare this to normal highs around 2 and normal lows around -15. In a normal cold air outbreak, plentiful snow cover in the eastern and central US will prevent the ground from absorbing sunlight and re-radiating that energy to warm the air passing overhead. The unique aspect about this cold wave is that snow cover is only near average for early January–instead, the cold air is intense and fast-moving enough to sustain its intensity well into the southern US despite passing over bare ground south of the Ohio River. Where there is snow north of the Ohio River, it’s just that much colder. The temporary snow cover in the Southeast is similar, creating a few nights and days colder there than would occur without the snow.

All of this works well to chill the Plains, Midwest, and Gulf Coast, but the eastern US has one more piece to solidify the deep freeze there. The storm track arcing back north along the Atlantic coast towards Greenland allows any low pressure following the track to feed off of the temperature difference between the cold air over land and warmth along the Gulf Stream. This leads to near-perfect conditions for rapid strengthening of the low pressure allowing it to pull in additional cold air from the Hudson Bay region in Canada as the low pressure heads out over the ocean. Whether or not the low pressure lines up right to produce snow at the coast, the cold air is still getting there.

Polar Vortex

What about everyone’s favorite wintertime phrase, the ‘polar vortex’? In this case, it appears to be nudged a bit off the North Pole from below by the pattern that is creating the Alaskan ridge–keep in mind that the polar vortex exists more than 10 miles above the ground, while the ridge-trough pattern is most prominent 5-10 miles above the ground. That nudging helps to direct the cold air out from under the polar vortex further south into the US, but the polar vortex itself is still stretched from eastern Canada across Greenland to Siberia.

What Does This Mean for California and the Southwest?

Finally, this setup does no favors to California and the Southwest. The storm track being deflected well to the north prevents rain from reaching those regions, enhancing the fire danger in this normally wet season. These dry areas will need to hope that the Alaskan ridge breaks down to let the storm track run off the Pacific or that there can be low pressure that sneaks south of the ridge, bringing a more active storm track to northern Mexico that can waver into California. Some may recognize bits of La Niña in the results of this pattern (dry California, cold northern US)—we are currently in a weak La Niña state and should remain in one until spring. La Niña may help a bit to set up the pattern, but the fact that we were in a similar state last year should remind everyone that this cold should not be expected from every La Niña.

Mother Nature’s Red Flag – Weather

The speed of racing makes it especially vulnerable to weather conditions. A race car is designed to capitalize on side and forward bite—connection of tires to track is essential. From drag to dirt to paved–the impact of weather is a concern to track directors and fans as well. In large associations, such as NASCAR, rain may force a winner to be declared before race completion or the race may be moved to the next day(s) when weather conditions clear. The obstacles created by adverse weather on race day are something all tracks must be aware of and plan for.

Dirt Track Racing

While treads for asphalt races are designed to be smooth—treads for dirt racing are grooved to adjust to the sometimes rough and rutted race tracks. The permeable nature of dirt tracks creates a different scenario for rainfall. Dirt tracks are sprayed with water to control the level of tackiness. Yet, a deluge of rain prior to racing can leave the track too muddy for racing without enough time to dry out prior to the race’s start and cause cancellations. Excessive rainfall during the event or heavy accumulation days up to an event can cause delays or cancellation as well.

Asphalt Racing

Rain in any amount can have disadvantageous consequences for asphalt tracks, and racing commonly comes to a halt until conditions improve. Rain prior to or during an event can cause a delay or even a cancellation. NASCAR has begun using Air Titan, 2.0 a track-drying technology, to reduce delay time after rain has stopped to quickly resume racing. Still, this technology is not sustainable in smaller markets with a cited cost of “more than $50,000 for a weekend.”[1] Track’s losses are substantial when adverse weather strikes and these cancellations become inevitable. A rain check can lessen consumer concerns—but resuming racing at a later date for booked tracks and for amateur, semi-professional, and professional drivers is a complicated affair. Sometimes consumers’ tickets can be transferred to later races—but that is not always the case and this can further create more difficulties.

Weathering It All

Race seasons run predominately from early spring through late summer—with some races extending into fall and winter. A long season exposes track owners, drivers, and fans to varying inclement weather scenarios. The unpredictable nature of weather makes determining these types of weather scenarios akin to peering into a crystal ball. Unfortunately, an indecisive decision or untimely one can further result in frustrated drivers and crews as well as incensed fans forced to deal with delays and cancellations. Declaring cancellation is not an easy call for any race director. Industry has responded to this weather problem–meteorological teams and websites wholly devoted to aiding race directors in determining the potential impact weather will have on race day are on the rise. Additionally, weather insurance products have been utilized to alleviate some of the financial impact weather can have on tracks.
Weather insurance is a highly specific and tailor-made product designed to satisfy a business’ need to mitigate against adverse weather impacts. Weather perils such as excessive rainfall, days that are too hot, days that are too cold, wind, or a combination of elements can be insured against to lessen potential risk. These products have also served as a source for marketing a track. For example, Atlanta Motor Speedway is again offering “Perfect Race Weather” for their NASCAR 2017 Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500 weekend. The “Perfect Race Weather” guarantees that if the temperatures are too cool, observed to be below 50 degrees, fans will receive a credit for future races. This alleviates many weather worries for fans who purchase tickets prior to race day and creates greater interest in a race. However, weather insurance can surpass this type of guarantee. If a policy was designed to be triggered by temperatures below 50 degrees, and temperatures are observed by the National Weather Service to be below this threshold a payout will occur. The payout can be utilized to reimburse fans or anyway the insured sees fit. With weather insurance, a track can offer refunds if cancellation occurs because of a specific measured event(s) and create highly marketable campaign with this type of guarantee.

One can be certain that perfect weather on race day will never be a certainty. Yet, the opportunity to make prepared and educated decisions on how to operate despite the weather is becoming customary to industry. Utilizing meteorological data, keeping fans aware of cancellation policies, and lessening revenue losses through weather insurance products allows tracks to get the upper-hand on adverse weather conditions.

Running Scared: Why we can no longer ignore the importance of weather preparedness

Washington Post’s weather editor, Jason Samenow wrote an opinion piece entitled, Is the Media Scaring the Public Too Much About Climate Change and Extreme Weather? Samenow cites the analysis of two U.K. scholars, Vladimar Jankovic and David Schultz. They argue that climate change is not the culprit for losses and destruction, but it is extreme weather events that wreak havoc. Further, the heavily-made correlations between climate change and weather events (without connecting all the dots) is irresponsible. Journalism’s continued emphasis on all things climate change has distracted from bigger issues, and because of this misconstrued media placement public focus may be off target.

Janovic and Shultz scholarly arguments lay the foundation for Samenow’s article, and all parties indicate that the primary focus on extreme weather as only an attribution of climate change is misguided. This centric focus on climate change takes us on a perilous course navigating discussion away from extreme weather events as a singular topic in and of itself. Further, this erroneous direction causes weather preparedness, a contender for center stage, to sit on the edges with very few in journalism ever indicating its integral importance in public understanding and planning. Weather preparedness’ absence among media noise leaves us all exposed. When extreme weather events impact and losses occur—we wonder why we weren’t better prepared? Weather preparedness simply is diminished in this discussion, and it should be intensified in dialogue concerning adverse weather and extreme weather events.

Climate change is evident and extreme weather events do act as this evidence—but extreme weather events need to be singularly looked at as well. Humans’ ability to navigate and survive on a larger portion of the globe and increased human productivity has changed how extreme weather events are observed. Humans and their assets run the risk of being in the path of destruction for extreme weather events because wherever it strikes humanity is also there. Running scared from extreme weather events is no longer an option. Instead we must lessen the impact recognizing weather carries risk and we must prepare for that risk whether that be through architectural innovations, redistribution of assets, or increasing insurance for protection. Adverse weather has always affected humanity and it likely always will—therefore, weather preparedness should be a part of the discussion.