America’s Big Freeze: Why The US Is Seeing Such A Sudden Cold Snap
Mention Texas and most people probably don’t picture a frozen Arctic tundra, yet that’s exactly what residents are experiencing at the moment.
A rare winter storm has blanketed the Lone Star state in snow and ice and temperatures have plunged across the country, but what exactly caused this extreme cold snap, and just how long is it expected to last?
The US National Weather Service describes the weather event that has sent temperatures plummeting to record lows as an ‘Arctic outbreak’. Ordinarily, the freezing cold temperatures seen further north on the American continent are separated from warmer regions in the south by something called the ‘polar jet stream’ – a vortex of extremely high winds in the Earth’s atmosphere that blows from east to west.
But over the past few days, the polar jet stream has weakened, and suddenly dipped dramatically, allowing a high pressure system ordinarily restricted to the Arctic to spill out of the region, pushing south through Canada and eventually into the United States, bringing polar conditions all the way to the Texas desert.
The Washington Post has described the combination of the weak jet stream and the cold high pressure system as a ‘perfect storm’ to create extreme conditions rarely seen this far south in the region. As a result, the normally balmy February conditionsi n the state have been replaced by blistering cold and heavy blizzards, with temperatures in some parts reaching as low as -18C (0F) on Tuesday.
As the cold system approached on Monday, all 254 counties in the state were under a winter storm warning – a first since records began. And it’s not just Texas – according to the National Weather Service, almost 150 million Americans are currently under similar warnings nationwide, with almost three-quarters of the country seeing snowfall on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden has approved a state of emergency in Texas, with blackouts leaving an estimated 4.3 million people without electricity or heating. State authorities have faced criticism after multiple power systems failed after being overwhelmed by extreme demand, with residents criticising the apparent unpreparedness and lack of response.
‘I have not seen any indication that the state’s leadership is doing much of anything about this,’ one man who has been without power for almost two days told BBC News, adding, ‘I think everybody has sort of thrown up their hands and said ‘wait until it gets warmer.”
And while it’s tempting to see this kind of storm as a freak occurrence that will sort itself out, scientists have warned that global warming may likely see places like Texas experiencing similar events more regularly in the coming years.
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