Sunday, February 14, 2016

Northeast Cold Wave: Record Lows, Dangerous Power Outages, Other Trouble

A huge highway pileup in Pennsylvania Saturday
caused by a snow squall associated with
the invasion of Arctic air into the Northeast.
There's no doubt we in New England are suffering through a particularly intense, dangerous cold wave this Valentine's Day.

It's going to get better, slowly at first, but much more rapidly on Monday.

But there's more weather trouble due Monday night and Tuesday. More on that in a minute.

First, the cold:

I was seeing some scary reports on Twitter and other media amid the cold this morning. There was an unconfirmed report of a truck through the Lake Champlain ice near Swanton, Vermont. That's something that might not end well, if it's true.

In Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, there was a dangeous power failure Sunday morning.

According to the Vermont Electric Cooperative web site, the power went out at around 3 a.m. for more than 1,400 homes and businesses in nine Northeast Kingdom towns and is not expected to be restored until 11 a.m. or so today.

A broken transmission pole, possibly caused by the cold weather, is to blame.

Temperatures early this morning in most of the affected towns were between 20 and 25 below, not including the wind chill.

The communities of Orleans and Barton were opening emergency shelters for people fleeing their frigid houses. And I think there's also going to be a lot of burst pipes in the homes with no electricity and heat.

Very Cold, And Many Record Lows

Temperatures across northern New England were in the upper teens to mid 20s below Sunday morning. I noticed Montpelier, Vermont at least tied its record low for the date of minus 19.

Arctic sea smoke in the bay, Scituate, Mass. this morning. 
In Watertown, New York, the temperature reached an awful 37 below.

Snow squalls associated with the Arctic cold front caused a highway pileup in Pennsylvania Saturday that killed three people. 

Southern New England and the New York City area were setting more impressive records.

Boston got down to at least 9 below, the coldest temperature on any date there since 1957, and the coldest February morning there since 1943.

New York City reached minus 1, a record low for the date and its coldest morning since 1994.

Block Island, off the southern coast of Rhode Island, set a record this morning for its coldest morning on record, for any date. It was minus 4 there.

The extreme cold in southern New England and the New York area led to some unusual warnings. There was a heavy freezing spray warning for Long Island Sound this morning.

Such a warning is fairly common in places like the waters off Alaska, but I don't remember the last time we had one in Long Island Sound.

Freezing spray warnings are issued when it's really cold and waves spray up onto boats and freeze. According to the National Weather Service,  "it is recommended that mariners not trained to operate in these conditions or vessels not properly equipped to do so remain in port or avoid the warning area."

Still A Warm Winter.

The odd thing is despite the extreme New England cold this weekend, this winter could still easily be the warmest on record for many towns in the region, or it will at least score in the top 5.

For instance, if the forecast for today and tomorrow in Burlington, Vermont is anywhere near accurate, the month of February will still be running about a degree and a half warmer than normal overall by the end of the day Monday.

After that, we'll have a few days of near or above normal temperatures. Who knows what the rest of the month will entail, but at Burlington, if February as a whole is ends up at just a little less than a degree warmer than normal overall, the winter of 2015-16 will still be the warmest on record.

It'll stay bitterly cold in New England today, but there are signs that the beginning of the end of the cold wave is coming.

The frigid air was caused by a lobe of the polar vortex working its way all the way down to New England Saturday. That's why southern New England and New York was so cold relative to normal.

The air over us came straight from the North Pole and northern Greenland, and due to the polar vortex lobe,  modified little on its trip down to see us.

A measure of the degree of the cold wave, and whether or not its fading, is to look at temperatures a few thousand feet overhead

Mount Washington, New Hampshire is a good place to take such a sample At around 10 p.m. last night, Mount Washington's temperature bottomed out at 38 below, its coldest temperature since March, 2007

By 7 a.m. this morning, the temperature there was up to 26 below. That's still obviously frigid, but the scant warming is a sign that the polar vortex lobe was weakening and starting to head away off to the northeast.

Down in the New England valleys, it'll still be frigid today and tonight, but not as bad as yesterday afternoon and last night.

Then the warmup really takes hold Monday, making way for a very messy storm Tuesday

The Upcoming Storm: 

Winter storm warnings extend from Kentucky, through much of Virginia and parts of West Virginia for tonight into Monday. A storm is sweeping southeastward through the Midwest into the Southeast, and is starting to interact with the cold air to produce snow and mixed precipittion.

The storm will head toward the coast, and head almost due north toward New England. It will sweep some warm air northward with it, so precipitation in the Northeast Monday night will start out as snow, then change to sleet and freezing rain, then rain in many areas.

A lot of this precipitation will come down pretty hard, too, since a lot of moisture is available to the storm.

Some areas will have quite a temperature whiplash. As noted, it was 0 in New York City this morning. By Tuesday afternoon, it will probably be about 50 degrees there. The change in Boston will be even more impressive: It will go from 9 below this morning to forecast high of 55 Tuesday.

Even where precipitation changes to rain and air temperatures get above freezing in New York and New England Tuesday, the rain could freeze in many areas as it hits the ground. Pavement, streets and sidewalks have been thoroughly chilled by this Arctic blast.

So rain could easily freeze even if the air is at something like 35 or 38 degrees. This would lead to a false sense of security among both motorists and pedestrians. "Hey its 37 degrees! The roads can't be icy," people will think. But trust me, the roads will be very icy in spots.

In the interior Northeast, like in northwestern New England, western New York and western Pennsylvania, there's still some question as to how much snow will fall, when the precipitation will change to a mix or rain, and how much of each kind of precipitation will fall.

Just plan on a really, REALLY messy day on Tuesday and leave at that for now.

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