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A rampaging jet stream, Arctic clippers, thunder and snow — it’s the polar vortex! At times, the winter of 2014 has seemed more like a disaster movie than a season.

St. Joseph Lighthouse on Lake Michigan this winter.

Although it still may go out like a lamb, there’s no doubt it came in like a lion, with some of the coldest weather ever recorded in many areas. More than 185 million Americans were affected, and more than a dozen deaths were attributed to the intense cold and winds.

A Jan. 2 nor’easter ushered in the deep freeze, the brunt of which was felt Jan. 6 and 7 as Arctic air bearing subzero temperatures spread south from northern Canada into the Midwest and swept east to the Atlantic and as far south as central Florida. In fact, the Midwest saw temperatures colder than the North Pole. The polar vortex had cast its net.

Jan. 6 ranked as the coldest day of the 21st century for the continental United States, with an average temperature of 17.9 degrees in the lower 48. Babbitt, Minn., was the coldest place in the country at minus 39 F. Dallas recorded a low temperature of 16 degrees. Gusting winds made things even worse, producing life-threatening wind chills of minus 40 to minus 60 F across a large swath of the country. All public schools in Minnesota were closed for the first time in 17 years. Ohio State University shut down for the first time in 36 years. Airlines canceled at least 3,600 flights. De-icing fluid froze at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Five hundred passengers were stranded aboard an Amtrak train stuck in snowdrifts, its engines frozen.

The 1,000-foot tug/barge Presque Isle, stuck in the ice south of Neebish Island, Mich.

The next day, more than 50 primary weather observation sites recorded new lows for the date. Madison, Wis., had a daytime high of 9 below zero. Chicago spent 37 consecutive hours in subzero territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul was in a 62-hour deep freeze.

Imagine being on the water in this blast of bitter cold weather. Capt. Ronald Davis and his crew aboard the 78-foot offshore lobster boat Michael & Kristen spent 11 days at sea before making it safely back to their home port of Gloucester, Mass., on Jan. 7.

The boat was caught in a storm during a trip to Georges Banks, with winds of 50 to 60 mph, heavy snowfall and seas estimated at 20 to 25 feet. “We just rode out the storm,” Davis, a veteran of 30 years at sea, told the Gloucester Times. Returning with a large haul of lobsters and crabs, Davis called it a “good” trip. “And we made it home in one piece. I guess we can’t complain.”

Even as we read about the scientists who were trapped in the Antarctic, the ice on Lake Michigan was so thick that an icebreaker stopped dead in its tracks and was rear-ended by the ship that was following it. The Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock, a 225-foot buoy tender out of Port Huron, Mich., was hit by the 990-foot Mesabi Minor as it was conducting an ice escort, breaking the pack in front of the freighter. The tender suffered two breaches in its hull, along with severe damage to its stern and fantail. The Mesabi Miner’s bow was pushed in a foot and had a 12-inch crack.

Members of the Orient Ice Yacht Club take to the frozen waters.

The nation’s marine infrastructure took a hit, too. Buoys and markers were pulled off-station as ice built up, moving and shifting to the wind, currents and tides. Bays, rivers and lakes were especially affected, with pilings and piers suffering in the hands of Mother Nature.

On the Osage River in Missouri, an entire string of docks was destroyed. Ramps were bent and twisted, and planking was pulled up and broken by ice chunks “half the size of a football field,” one dock owner reported. The dock was frozen in place, and then chunks of ice broke over it and ripped it apart. “We’ve got a mess on our hands,” he said.

Even iceboaters had to take a few days off. Wisconsin Stern Steering Association and Northwest Ice Yacht Association regattas were postponed, along with many others throughout the Midwest, as much because of the snow as the cold. The Northeast fared little better. In Maine, members of the Chickawaukie Ice Club found 8 inches of solid ice on Lake Damariscotta on Jan. 7 but a temperature of 8 degrees and “blowing a gale.”

Just what is the polar vortex, and where did this “mother lode of cold air,” as one weather expert called it, come from? Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh called it an invention of liberals, but it’s a phenomenon that scientists uncovered in the 1850s. The vortex is a swirl of cold air — the coldest in the Northern Hemisphere — that normally circulates harmlessly over the North Pole. Beginning in early January, an unusually strong high-pressure system in the high eastern Pacific pushed its way north, displacing the vortex, which then descended on Canada and the United States, bringing with it extremely cold air. Existing snow cover in the Midwest and other parts of the country only made things worse. As the high weakened, the vortex retreated to its normal position over the pole.

Iced anemometers aboard the Coast Guard cutter Bristol Bay

Some scientists say we’ll see more of this kind of movement at the pole. As climate change contributes to a reduction in the Arctic ice cover, the vortex is weakened and becomes easier to displace. Rising temperatures in the Arctic Ocean radiate back into the atmosphere, which in turn disrupts or weakens the vortex, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Understanding the connections between the Arctic warming trend and more severe weather in the mid-latitudes remains an active area of research,” NOAA says in an overview. 

See related article -

- Historic cold in the Big Apple

March 2014 issue