An unprecedented coast-to-coast storm and historic cold snap fueled by a polar vortex has hit large swathes of the U.S., delivering extreme, record-setting winter weather to much of the country, including areas which rarely see such conditions. It has left millions without power, tens of millions facing subzero temperatures, and multiple states under emergency declarations. Below is an overview of the weather event and its impact thus far, including 20 deaths in related incidents as of Tuesday.
A dangerous nationwide freeze, with more cold, snow, and ice to come
As CNN noted on Monday, “The cold air is so widespread that you could travel nearly 2,000 miles from the Rio Grande on the Mexican border to the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian border entirely in winter storm warnings or watches. … [On Monday, the] mercury dropped to 5 degrees in Dallas, 6 below zero in Oklahoma City and 32 below zero in Kansas City, Missouri — the coldest for those cities since 1989. Snow fell in Brownsville, Texas, where measurable snow has occurred only twice on record since 1898.” Snow doesn’t fall on Gulf Coast beaches very often, either:
As for the science behind the interior cold snap, the National Weather Service reports: “This impressive onslaught of wicked wintry weather across much of the Lower 48 is due to the combination of strong Arctic high pressure supplying sub-freezing temperatures and an active storm track escorting waves of precipitation from coast-to-coast.”
The chill continued into Tuesday morning throughout much of the Upper Midwest, stretching down to Texas:
There has been historic snowfall from Seattle to north Texas — where it was colder than Anchorage on Monday — as well as blankets of ice across Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama. That storm system moved into the northeast quarter of the country on Monday night:
Another storm system, currently in the Rockies, is on the way and will bring more snow and ice to most of the same states that were hit over the holiday weekend. Meanwhile, dangerous wind-chill conditions are expected to continue across the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley through Wednesday.
The weather has led to the deaths of at least 13 people over the past week, mostly in vehicle accidents after snow and ice made driving treacherous across multiple states. Six people were killed and dozens injured in a 130-vehicle pileup on an icy interstate near Fort Worth last Thursday.
Storms have also disrupted air travel, shutting down airports in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and prompting the cancellation of nearly 4,000 flights on Monday.
Millions lost power, plus rolling blackouts, as power grids buckle under the strain
More than four million people were without power on Tuesday afternoon, according to the poweroutage.us website, including more than 3.2 million in Texas alone, plus hundreds of thousands more across Louisiana and eight other states, mostly in the South. In addition, as the New York Times reports, rolling blackouts have been ordered in more than a dozen states:
The Southwest Power Pool, a consortium that oversees electric utilities in 14 states — from Montana to New Mexico and Minnesota to Louisiana — has ordered its member utilities to start controlled rolling cutoffs of electric service as the demand for power is overwhelming the available generation, which has been hampered by the storm.
On Monday in Kansas, one of the states affected by rolling blackouts, Governor Laura Kelly asked residents to cut back on their power and natural gas usage “to ensure we have enough available to make it through these sub-zero temperatures” over the coming days.
More on the the situation in Texas is below.
The weather messed with Texas
No state has been hit harder than Texas, where snow (rare outside of west Texas and the panhandle) blanketed much of the state over the weekend. Extreme cold is expected to persist in the state through midweek, and the power disruptions have been widespread. Simply put, this kind of weather almost never strikes the Lone Star State in its entirety, and it has struggled under the strain, which started last week and has only gotten worse. Governor Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard, but first responders in parts of the state have still been overwhelmed with calls for help from residents. President Biden declared an emergency in the state on Sunday night as well, making federal resources available.
The extreme weather, coupled with record-breaking energy demand amid the unseasonably cold temperatures, has hobbled the state’s power infrastructure — per the Wall Street Journal:
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electricity grid, began calling for rotating outages overnight on Sunday to avoid widespread blackouts that can occur when demand exceeds supply. But the severe power shortages forced companies to curtail power beyond short rolling blackouts, with many customers losing electricity for much of the day. … The imbalance occurred as residents cranked their thermostats amid record-breaking lows in some areas of the state, causing electricity demand to surge amid a precipitous drop in generating capacity. The grid operator said it lost about 34,000 megawatts of supply as freezing temperatures forced natural-gas- and coal-fired power plants offline in quick succession. The weather also reduced natural-gas supplies to power plants and caused wind turbines in West Texas to freeze.
The failure of the turbines provided immediate fodder for conservatives like Tucker Carlson, who claimed it as proof of the futility of a green-energy revolution. (Carlson’s critique, however, ignores the fact that weather-related shutdowns from wind only makes up 13 percent of the total outage.)
Local officials across north and central Texas pleaded with residents to remain indoors amid the dangerous road conditions and cold. Bloomberg explains why such requests, despite their necessity, also became a compounding problem:
Texans awoke Monday morning to discover that warnings of rolling power outages had escalated into hours-long blackouts. Instead of a chilly 30 minutes without TV, cue frantic calls to elderly relatives, last-minute hotel bookings, shopping trips for propane canisters and fielding emails from the car. As the day unfolded, the scale of the crisis gripping the state threatened to take on a darker dimension. The National Guard was deployed to get old people into warming shelters. All air travel in and out of Houston was shut, and Covid-19 vaccination efforts faced potential disruption, with city officials racing to utilize more than 8,000 vaccine doses after a storage facility lost back-up power.
Hundreds of thousands regained power in the state on Monday, but the disruptions are expected to persist in the coming days. The weather has also led to cell and internet outages in parts of the state.
Social media was full of accounts of Texans struggling with extended losses of power and cold homes, sometimes on top of other difficulties.
Numerous temporary shelters and warming stations have been opened in recent days for the homeless and others in need. On Monday in Dallas, one homeless shelter had to temporarily relocate 250 people after it lost power.
And Texas, like many of its neighbors, is due for more winter weather starting Tuesday.
How much longer is the nationwide cold expected to last?
Unfortunately, meteorologists expect the weather to stick around for a while. More than 245 million Americans are expected to face temperatures below freezing in the continental U.S. over the next seven days as the cold snap continues, including subzero temperatures for more than 50 million people. The Arctic air has already set temperature records in numerous states, and CNN reports that more than 240 additional records for cold weather could be broken on Tuesday night.
According to the National Weather Service, wind chills from Arctic air will linger over the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley through midweek, as a new winter storm is growing in the Southern Plains. An ice storm is also expected in north Texas later this week. And while the Northeast has avoided the intense winter weather around Valentine’s Day, later this week New York City could see between three and six inches of snowfall.
Price of oil reaches pandemic high
The extreme weather has prompted a spike in energy demand while simultaneously threatening oil production operations with both freezing temperatures and rolling blackouts. Oil prices had already been rising in recent weeks, and the winter storms sent West Texas crude to a pandemic-record high — above $60 — on Monday.
Yes, this is all likely linked to climate change
The New York Times explains:
[R]esearch suggests that frigid temperatures in Texas could be a consequence of global warming, a phenomenon that has prompted the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe to use the phrase “global weirding.” There is research suggesting that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the northern latitudes and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex. This allows the cold air to escape to the south, especially when a blast of additional warming strikes the stratosphere and deforms the vortex. The result can be episodes of plunging temperatures, even in places that rarely get nipped by frost.
The severe weather also serves as a preview for what will happen to energy grids as they face previously unanticipated weather events. “Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, told the Times. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”