What, exactly, is a polar vortex? Every time that I think I am beginning to grasp the weather, a seemingly new term comes along that I have never heard of. Blizzards? Check. Winter Storms? Check. Polar Vortex? What the ____? The polar vortex is a mass of very cold air that hangs around the north and south poles of the Earth. This giant area of frigid air is normally kept in check around the poles by the jet streams, but due to unusual circumstances, it has drifted over the United States. While the US is pummeled by snow, sleet and freezing temperatures, the North pole is slightly warmer than it normally is at this time of year.
The jetstream just shifts enough … [the front] just moves in over the upper Midwest, and it just sits in place, and it allows the cold air to spread over the entire upper Midwest,” according to Todd Heitkamp of the National Weather Service in South Dakota. The polar vortex phenomenon is not a new occurrence. This exact circumstance happened in the 1990s, according to Todd Heitkamp. Additionally, Heitkamp does not like the term ‘polar vortex’, believing it makes the process seem more dire than it really is. It’s not really a phrase I like — it makes it sound a lot worse than what it actually is … This has happened before,” Heitkamp stated. The polar vortex can be dangerous, especially if people are not prepared for the intense cold wind, bringing wind chills of an excess of negative 20 and lower in some areas. In environments of sub zero temperatures, exposed skin can develop frostbite and some cars may not run properly. It is recommended to avoid going outside during the next couple days if at all possible.
Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with The Weather Channel, says it’s an arctic cyclone, it ordinarily spins counterclockwise around the north and south poles. While it tends to dip over northeastern Canada, it’s catching everyone’s attention because it has moved southward over such a large population — as many as 140 million Americans are feeling the freeze. There’s a variety of reasons why a chunk of cold air over Canada would break off our way. Chiefly, warmer air builds up over areas such as Greenland or Alaska, and that air forces the colder, denser air southward. Also, weather patterns can create the right conditions for the polar vortex to point south. But in this case, “this very well just may be one of those anomalies where it forces itself southward,” Giannasca said.
Is this a rare phenomenon? Yes, and no. Through the course of a winter, the arctic air can get displaced southward, typically into the eastern U.S. But it is uncommon for such cold air to cover such a large part of the country, happening maybe once a decade or longer. Amplifying this polar vortex are the extreme cold and brutal winds — sending places such as Fargo, N.D., at 32 below zero and Madison, Wis., at minus 21. Add the wind chill, and it will feel like minus 50s and 60s in some parts.
Could there be a polar vortex of this magnitude again this winter? Forecasts show temperatures around the country as a whole will begin moderating by the end of the week — that means the 20s and 30s in the Plains and Midwest, while parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast could be in the 40s. But, like any unpredictable weather phenomenon, whether or not this can happen again, “is hard to say,” Giannasca said.
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana | DMN — Indiana Governor Mike Pence has declared a “state of disaster emergency” for 29 counties affected by the severe weather that began on Sunday. “As a result of the severe snowstorms, extreme cold and dangerous wind conditions that have impacted counties across Indiana, I have declared a state of disaster emergency in the 29 counties that were most affected by the storm, and the State of Indiana stands ready to assist Hoosiers as needed,” said Pence in a news release issued this afternoon. “We will continue to respond to this serious winter storm and evaluate its impact on other Indiana counties going forward.”
The 29 counties are: Clinton, Delaware, Elkhart, Fulton, Grant, Howard, Jasper, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Lake, LaPorte, Madison, Marshall, Montgomery, Newton, Noble, Porter, Pulaski, Rush, St. Joseph, Starke, Steuben, Sullivan, Tipton, Vermillion, Vigo, Wabash, White, and Whitley. During an earlier press conference at the Statehouse, Pence praised local first responders, plow drivers, state police and National Guard for clearing roads and aiding Hoosiers in bitter temperatures he characterized as possibly the worst in 20 years. He warned, though, that dangerous conditions continue and people should stay in their homes to remain dry and warm.
“Our first word today is this continues to be a very dangerous storm. If people can stay in, and can stay home — they should stay home,” he said. “That allows our public safety personnel, our highway crews and local law enforcement and local transportation efforts to go forward in an unimpeded way. “But if people go out, I think it is important that they use common sense.” Across the state, there were 46,500 residents without power, more than 20 road closures and 52 travel warnings, officials said during the press conference. Several hundred people were also in shelters today. The Indiana State Police had around 300 troopers working today and more than 250 members of the Indiana National Guard had fanned out across the state to assist motorists, medical transfers and other needs.
At least 67,000 people in central Indiana lost power during Sunday’s winter storm or in the brutally cold aftermath Monday, and it won’t be restored for some for at least another day. As of 6:45PM EST, Indianapolis Power and Light reported almost 23,000 still without power in it’s coverage area. Duke Energy reported more than 8,000 without power in Indiana, 6,238 were in hard hit Hamilton County just north of Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and other city officials decided to soften travel restrictions in the wake of a winter storm and in the midst of the extreme cold, but Ballard stressed the danger is not over. In a news conference Monday morning, Ballard said the Marion County travel advisory would be changed to “orange” status beginning at noon on Monday. Even though the road status has improved, Ballard said companies should rethink the threat of firing workers who stay home due to the weather, and he said he still wants people to stay off the roads if possible, due to the dangerously low temperatures. “The wind chill is 40 below. You can die in 10 minutes if you’re not properly clothed,” he said.
Many of Indiana’s schools, businesses and municipal offices were shuttered Monday, and some planned to remain closed Tuesday, after the storm dumped up to 15 inches of snow and 35 mph wind gusts drifted some roads shut. Ballard said that about 400 people were in shelters set up by the city to give people refuge from the biting cold. Road conditions in Indianapolis were generally fair, considering the circumstances. Road crews have been able to plow many streets, and the interstates have also been plowed, but snow remains on the roads. Ballard said it was too cold for salt to be effective on the roads Monday morning, but he said crews started using salt again as the sun came out later in the morning.
Ballard said he’s now most concerned about the bitter cold air, the coldest in 20 years, now affecting the city. “It’s the cold that really scares us. We can always clear away the snow,” Ballard said. “Just a few minutes outside, people will be affecting by frostbite, they’ll get numb and they may not even know that they’re getting frostbite.” Ballard issued the city’s first red level travel warning since a blizzard paralyzed the city in January 1978. He lifted that ban at noon Monday, but said he wanted schools and businesses in the city to remain closed through Tuesday until the worst of the severe cold had passed.
Doug Carter, Indiana State Police superintendent, said the dangerous roads and subzero temperatures was hurt in citizens across the state. “I think they are in fear of what could come, particularly in regards to power,” he said. State Department of Homeland Security will assess today if more counties should be included in the state emergency declaration. “This obviously lays a foundation for us to seek federal assistance and a federal emergency disaster declaration. I am not at a place now where I can tell you or not if we qualify for that. But the snow totals are approaching record level in many communities.”
Department of Homeland Security will determine the impact midweek to assess whether a federal declaration will be sought, Pence said. Karl Browning, Indiana Department of Transportation commissioner, said while some roads were cleared of snow it could be until Wednesday for the packed snow and ice to melt away. Surface temperature needs to rise to 20 degrees for melting salts to work. “We will continue to have the snow pack, which is drivable. But it is also dangerous,” he said. “When the temperature starts to freeze up again over night we have the risk of ice forming and that will create additional slick spots.”
12,400 airline flights were delayed today according to FlightAware.com with more than 4,200 cancelled. 66% of the flights at Indianapolis International Airport were cancelled…65% at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. There are already almost 1,300 cancellations across the country tomorrow.
Photos from The Indianapolis Star and WRTV.
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio | DMN — A Steubenville, Ohio, high school football player has been released from a juvenile detention center less than a year after he was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a party. Ma’lik Richmond, 17, was released from the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Detention Facility after completing his sentence. In a statement e-mailed to DMN, Richmond’s attorney Walter Madison said the youth had “reflected, learned, matured and grown in many ways” and was now a “better, stronger person looking forward to school, life and spending time with his family.”
In March 2013, Steubenville High School football players Ma’lik Richmond, then 16, and Trent Mays, 17, were both found delinquent — the juvenile court equivalent of guilty — of the digital penetration of an intoxicated 16-year-old girl at an alcohol-fueled party in Steubenville on the night of Aug. 11, 2012, as other teenagers watched. Digital penetration is legally defined as rape in Ohio and many other states. Mays was also accused of later sending text messages that included photos of the girl naked and was slapped with an additional charge of distributing nude images of a minor.
Richmond was sentenced to one year in juvenile detention. Mays was sentenced to two years and remains in juvenile detention. The judge classified both teens as sex offenders. The case, which was plagued with allegations that school officials and coaches participated in a cover-up, created a firestorm in the eastern Ohio mining community and garnered national attention partly because the events were widely shared on social media. A grand jury investigation into the rape led to four school employees, including the school superintendent, being indicted on felony charges.
Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey faces three felony counts: one charge of tampering with evidence and two counts of obstructing justice. He also is charged with making a false statement and obstructing official business, both misdemeanors. Elementary school principal Lynnett Gorman and wrestling coach Seth Fluharty were both were charged with misdemeanor failure to report child abuse. Volunteer assistant Steubenville football coach Matt Belardine was charged with four misdemeanors: allowing underage drinking, obstructing official business, making a false statement and contributing to the unruliness or delinquency of a child. All four adults pleaded not guilty to the charges and hearings are scheduled for later this month.
TOKYO, Japan | DMN — The operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant plans to start cleaning underground tunnels believed to be part of the sources of radioactive materials poisoning the groundwater in the area. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) will first block the flow of tainted water between the damaged buildings and the tunnels. Workers will begin burying pipes in the ground to carry refrigerants in January, NHK TV network reported. In April, they are set to start draining the contaminated water from the tunnels.
Late last month, TEPCO said it had found new leaks at the No. 1 reactor, in addition to the previous ones discovered last earlier in December. The latest incident on December 24 may have leaked around 225 tons of radioactive water, Japan Daily Press reported. It turned out that the water in that area contained Strontium-90, a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission with a half-life of 28.8 years, at a level as high as 440 becquerels per liter. The current temporary limit for water to be released from the concrete boundaries is said to be 10 becquerels of Strontium-90 per liter. A TEPCO representative feared the water may have already seeped into the ground.
On December 21, Tepco said it had found a record 1.9 million becquerels per liter of beta ray-emitting radioactive substances at its No.2 reactor, the highest since the nuclear meltdown in March 2011. The discovery was made after high levels of radioactive cesium were detected in deeper groundwater at the No. 4 reactor. Previously, the highest level recorded was 1.8 million becquerels at the No. 1 reactor on December 13. It’s believed that the radioactivity in the groundwater at reactor No. 2 has been rising since November. Since the outbreak of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, leakage of radiation-contaminated water has been the major threat to Japan’s population and environment, as well as to the international community.
The chairwoman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned last month that water exposed to radiation from the wrecked plant would soon reach the US. “The highest amount of radiation that will reach the US is of two orders of magnitude – 100 times – less than the drinking water standard,” Allison Macfarlane told Bloomberg. “So, if you could drink the salt water, which you won’t be able to do, it’s still fairly low.” According to Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, radiation released during explosions at the plant meltdowns and during subsequent leaks of contaminated underground water will reach mainland US shores by early 2014.
The San Francisco Bay area city of Fairfax, California, passed a resolution in early December calling for more testing of coastal seafood and ways to reduce radiation emissions from Fukushima. On December 4, the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), advised the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to consider dumping toxic water into the ocean after lowering the level of radioactive materials to below the legal limit. Meanwhile, according to a draft report released by officials on the Japanese Industry Ministry’s contaminated water panel, the Fukushima Daiichi plant could run out of storage space for contaminated water within two years. The report suggested covering the ground with asphalt to reduce the rain inflow and building giant tanks with more capacity, as well as installing special undersea filters to reduce the radioactivity of water that leaks into the sea. Currently, 400 metric tons of highly contaminated water is being produced at the site on a daily basis, much of it later flowing to the sea.
To tackle the problem, TEPCO has been running a test operation of an advanced water processing machine, known as ALPS, which can remove all radioactive materials except for tritium from tainted water. Its operation could be key to reducing the high levels of radiation in the water. TEPCO plans to clean up all of the tainted water through ALPS by the end of March 2015. It says that over 300,000 tons of radioactive water has been stored in 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima plant, and that the amount will double within a few years. In July 2013 TEPCO acknowledged the fact that contaminated water has been escaping from basements and trenches of the Fukushima plant into the ocean. Since then, the operator reported two major leaks of highly radioactive water into the ocean from storage tanks – a 300-ton leak in August and 430 liters in October.
Major setbacks have stalled TEPCO’s handling of the nuclear disaster amid widespread criticism and calls to put Fukushima-related work under government control. Earlier this week a former employee in the facility said that one of the reasons for so many leaks could be the cost-cutting measures applied by TEPCO, such as using duct tape and wire nets to mend the leaking tanks.