An observatory office on Mount Washington as the weather reached a record low of 108 degrees Fahrenheit on February 3. Image taken by the National Weather Service, courtesy of Insider.

Cold Weather Events Heat Global Warming Concerns

A recent spell of natural disasters in the United States has fueled more interest in the effects of climate change on weather patterns.

After suffering a massive winter storm in December 2022, the state of Texas battled a subsequent ice storm in late January and early February. During this disaster, over 40 million people in the Southern United States bore severe weather conditions. The Texas Tribune reported over 400,000 power outages in the state as a result of the storm. In the capital city of Austin, utility company Austin Energy announced on February 11 that power was fully restored to its customers. Seven deaths were attributed to the storm, many of them due to icy roads.

Meanwhile in New England, the area experienced a steep drop in temperature during the weekend of February 4th. While low temperatures are familiar to New Englanders, this cold snap was unprecedented. At one point, the arctic blast created the single lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States. The top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire plummeted to minus 108 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill. Around the Boston area, temperatures fell to minus 36 degrees with wind chill, tied with 2016 for the coldest wind chill since 1957.

The effects of global warming can exacerbate these winter weather events. A polar vortex is a latitudinal band of low-pressure air, near the North and South poles, that creates the environment for the drastically colder weather in those areas. According to the non-profit Environmental and Energy Studies Institute (EESI), “Changes in temperature differences can make the polar vortex expand to more southern latitudes. While this phenomenon occurs naturally, climate change is expected to impact the frequency and severity of polar vortex events.” Texas has seen plenty of snow and ice storms in the past, but its infrastructure is poorly equipped to handle colder temperatures. Given the naturally warmer weather in the South, houses are frequently built with large windows, places where heat can escape. While this storm was less destructive than the one Texas experienced in early 2021—over $25 billion in damage was caused and 130 people died—it is still indicative of larger shifts in the climate.

Measures can be taken to mitigate the damage done during a cold snap. Anything that relies on water to function should be drained and turned off, such as sprinkler systems and hoses. Additionally, wrapping any exposed water pipes, and winterizing vehicles and machinery will reduce the likelihood of the cold weather potentially breaking anything. 

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