The Arctic Plunge: From Feeling Like 92 to Freezing in a Day

Temperatures have plummeted across the eastern United States, but spare a thought for McAllen, Texas, where the drop was precipitous. …

In the United States in 2019, it often seems there is little that can be agreed upon. But from the borderlands of Texas, up through the Plains and Midwest and over the Appalachians to the East Coast, there was one thought shared by millions of Americans on Tuesday: Gosh, it’s cold out.

And, they were right: Temperatures were hovering around or punching past the freezing point for most of the population as a dip in the jet stream funneled Arctic air across the eastern half of the country.

In Texas, recent warm weather gave way to numbing cold, with the “feels like” reading dropping from 92 to 31 in places. Schools from Ohio to Vermont called off classes as the snow piled up. People in Little Rock, Ark., could have been excused for thinking they were in Alberta, Canada. Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., canceled races, facing temperatures that were not fit for man or beast. And daily records were falling even in places like Chicago that are no strangers to the lower end of the thermometer.

By the time the air mass moves on, it is expected to have broken more than 150 daily-temperature records.

“This kind of weather is coming a month or two earlier than normal,” said Marc Chenard, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “I wouldn’t call it extreme cold, but it is extremely below average for this time of year.”

In McAllen, Texas, on the border with Mexico, the heat index reached 92 degrees on Monday. By Tuesday morning, it felt like 31 degrees with the wind chill.

On Monday night, when the temperature outside hit 55 degrees, the Salvation Army opened its emergency shelter in McAllen to anyone who needed a warm bed. “When you’re in the streets, anything below 80 here in South Texas, that’s cold,” said Armando Hernandez, who works at the shelter. Approximately 20 people stayed there overnight. “Some of the people don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.

Further along the border in Brownsville, a sharp drop in temperature had residents bundling up with hats, hoodies, thick sweaters, or whatever would help keep the cold out.

“It was in the 80s yesterday and now it’s in the 30s,” said Idalia Munos, a cashier at the Vermillion, a Tex-Mex restaurant in town. “It was a surprise.”

Low temperatures on Tuesday morning in Tennessee and Arkansas also prompted school closings and delayed openings in several counties, according to local reports. The wind chills in the Memphis area on Tuesday were expected to be 10 degrees, and the city had a record low for Nov. 12 of 21 degrees.

And there is more cold coming for the South. On Wednesday, temperatures in Austin, Texas, Houston and New Orleans are expected to be in the 20s.

Temperatures dropped even lower in the Midwest, though residents and officials there said they were generally unfazed and are always prepared for an early winter storm.

In Chicago, forecasters expected the high temperature on Tuesday to reach just 18 degrees, 10 degrees below the previous record for the coldest high temperature.

In Ohio, Matt Bruning of the state’s Department of Transportation said experience had taught officials to have plows ready to deploy for a November storm. “I’d like to think we have it down to a science,” he said.

But new problems always arise: “You wouldn’t believe how many people are on their phones while driving, even in the snow,” he said.

Mr. Bruning said that state-owned snow plows were hit by other vehicles 59 times last year, so many of the state trucks and plows have been outfitted with green exterior lights to make them easier to see in poor weather.

Students in some Ohio districts were given a snow day, though they would have to make up the time later.

“It’s a fact of life here,” said Mandy Minick, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education. “And we deal with it the same way we do every year.”

“No heartburn here yet,” she added.

In Indianapolis, the National Weather Service said Tuesday morning’s frigid temperature of 8 degrees set the record for the coldest temperature this early in the season.

Snowfalls could measure up to a foot in the Northeast, with the greatest amounts in the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains of Vermont and northern Maine, according to the Weather Service.

Snow was coming down in Burlington, Vt., and flurries were expected in Portland, Maine, too. Buffalo broke records with 8.7 inches of snow on Tuesday.

“It definitely creates the kickoff to winter,” said Alyssa Rosengard, manager of Burton Snowboards’ flagship store in Burlington.

Last year was a good one for ski resorts in the area, she said. “We like to think optimistically, but nature is unpredictable so we try to stay excited about the potential for snow throughout the season,” she said. “It’s looking like another great winter.”

One of the highest expected snowfalls was forecast for Duane Center, N.Y., which is expected to receive 12.3 inches.

With such a drastic drop in temperatures across so much of the country, questions are often asked about how it can be so chilly if climate change is warming the globe.

But such questions may confuse weather and climate. While climate refers to the long-term averages and trends in atmospheric conditions over large areas, weather deals with short-term variations, which is what happens when Arctic air visits your hometown.

And, of course, an Arctic blast can still occur in a warmer world, even if the air that comes down from the north is not as cold. Some studies suggest that climate change could actually make frigid waves of Arctic air more common, a result of shrinking sea ice.

Unlike in the rest of the country, above-average temperatures were expected across the West into the Great Basin and Rockies. For Southern California and the Southwest, warmer temperatures, relatively low humidity and a lack of rain mean an elevated threat of fires.

Mariel Padilla and Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *