February 2014

Polar Vortex Causes Wild Winter Weather

Niagara FallsNiagara Falls

Niagara Falls
On January 10, the American side of Niagara Falls was partly frozen over.

Can you imagine the weather getting so cold that even a huge waterfall starts to freeze over? That’s what happened in New York State in early January. Temperatures dropped so low that parts of the American side of Niagara Falls, the largest waterfall in North America, quickly froze over.

On January 7, places in all 50 states reported temperatures that were below freezing. The entire country experienced what is known as a cold wave—a rapid drop in temperature within a span of 24 hours. The cold wave was partly caused by the “polar vortex,” a system of swirling, freezing-cold air over the Arctic region.

In North America, the polar vortex usually only affects parts of Alaska and Canada. This winter, however, it sent blasts of cold air as far south as New England and the Great Lakes region. This caused record low temperatures across the United States. The weather caused many schools and office buildings to close. It also created huge traffic problems, especially in places not prepared for such extreme cold.

On the morning of January 7, it was 8 degrees in Atlanta, Georgia, and 6 degrees below zero in the state’s northern mountains. These were the coldest temperatures the Deep South state had experienced in many years. New records were also set in Oklahoma and Texas where wind chills made temperatures feel like minus 40 degrees. In Chicago, the weather became too cold even for Anana, the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo. She had to stay indoors until the weather warmed up again.

The extreme cold weather continued through parts of January and into the month of February. Major snowstorms hit Kansas and Massachusetts. Ice snapped tree limbs that brought down power lines, causing blackouts in Philadelphia and other cities. In Atlanta, a a rare ice storm left thousands of drivers stranded on frozen roadways for more than 24 hours. Many areas of the country continued to experience temperatures that were 10–20 degrees colder than normal.

Image credit: ©AP Photo/Nick LoVerde
Question 1
What is the polar vortex?

Question 2
In which city were thousands of drivers stranded because of a rare ice storm?

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