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Record-challenging cold snap gripping United States

Ben Domensino, Monday February 15, 2021 - 14:44 EDT

The terms 'historic' and 'polar vortex' are getting a good workout in the United States this week as a frigid Arctic air mass sends shivers across the country.

Back in January, the air high above the North Pole began to suddenly warm up and slow down (it's usually really cold and windy up there).

This 'sudden stratospheric warming' event quickly caught the attention of meteorologists and climate scientists around the world, because they can be a trigger for major outbreaks of cold weather near the ground.

In the weeks that followed last month's sudden stratospheric warming, this is exactly what started to happen.

Pools of cold air that are usually bottled up over the Arctic managed to escape and spread towards the south. These vagrant Arctic air masses are now causing temperatures to plummet in some parts of the northern hemisphere, even challenging cold-weather records in a few locations.

All weather records are worthy of attention, but cold-weather records are happening less frequently in the modern climate and are arguably more impressive than hot-weather records.

Image: Despite notable cold outbreaks like this one still occurring, the lowest annual temperature in Houston, Texas has been getting warmer in recent decades. Source: Climate Central

There have already been reports of record-breaking low temperatures in the United States amid this blast of Arctic air, including a bone-numbing -51ºF (-46.1ºC) at Bottineau, North Dakota on Saturday.

The map below shows a tongue of cold polar air passing over the United States on Sunday.

Image: Cold Arctic air (white) spreading over the United States on Sunday, according to the ECMWF model.

In Texas, emergency warming centres have been set up to provide shelter for homeless people and stranded motorists caught out by snow and ice-covered roads.

On Sunday night, winter storm warnings stretched over 3000 km from New Mexico up to Vermont.

The severe cold snap will persist well into the new week as Arctic air continues to surge across the United States.

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