By John Lawrence
More than 49,000 flights were canceled and another 300,000 delayed in January as airlines lost $75 million to $150 million because of costs such as deicing jets as well as lost revenue. 30 million people had their flights canceled or delayed.
Flight cancellations cost passengers an extra $2.5 billion in meals and extra hotel bills in January alone. Many stranded passengers had to wait days — and in a few extreme case up to a week — to get a seat on a flight out.
After viewing the Super Bowl many fans had their flights home canceled. Even the victorious Seattle Seahawks experienced flight disruptions. Their charter flight was delayed by a snowstorm in Newark, NJ. After a couple of hours on the tarmac, the plane finally took off, only to be diverted to Minneapolis. They finally made it home hours after their scheduled arrival time.
The first month of the year included four of the 10 coldest days during the 21st century in the contiguous 48 states and record snowfall across the country. Chicago was at one point colder than the South Pole, and an ice storm stranded thousands of drivers on Atlanta-area highways.
The first week of January saw winter storm Hercules shutting down airports and creating hazardous road conditions. A massive winter storm pounded the Northeast with heavy winds and driving snow, shutting down Boston’s airport, and prompting cancellations of thousands of flights as well as state emergency declarations in New York and New Jersey.
The onslaught continued with more heavy snow, howling winds and bitterly cold temperatures. Freezing temperatures with below-zero wind chills in some places complicated life for residents from Minnesota to Maine. At least 15 people died and thousands lost power to their homes and businesses.
Record low temperatures were recorded across the US. Altogether more than 200 million people were affected, in an area ranging from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean and extending south to include roughly 187 million Americans in the Continental United States.
The severe Arctic air outbreak due to the Polar Vortex sent temperatures in New York City plummeting to a record low of 4°F on January 7, which broke a 116-year record. The cost of propane used to heat houses and barns skyrocketed. 24,000 residents lost power in the midwest.
In Minnesota, all public schools statewide were closed on January 6 by order of Governor Mark Dayton. This had not been done in 17 years. In Indiana, more than fifty of the state’s ninety-two counties, including virtually everywhere north of Indianapolis, closed all roads to all traffic except emergency vehicles. In Michigan, the mayor of Lansing issued a snow emergency prohibiting all non-essential travel as well as closing down non-essential government offices. In Wisconsin, schools in most (if not all) of the state were closed on January 6 as well as on January 7.
When the second cold wave emerged, schools were also closed on January 27 and 28. In Ohio, schools across the entire state were closed on January 6 and 7.
Research on a possible connection between individual extreme weather events and long-term anthropogenic climate change is new and the topic of scientific debate. Prior to the events of January 2014, several studies on the connection between extreme weather and the polar vortex were published suggesting a link between climate change and increasingly extreme temperatures experienced by mid-latitudes (e.g., central North America).
This phenomenon can be understood to result from the rapid melting of polar sea ice, which replaces white, reflective ice with dark, absorbent open water (i.e., the albedo of this region has decreased). As a result, the region has heated up faster than other parts of the globe. With the lack of a sufficient temperature difference between Arctic and southern regions to drive jet stream winds, the jet stream may have become weaker and more variable in its course, allowing cold air usually confined to the poles to reach further into the mid latitudes.
Near the end of the month the Deep South saw record low temperatures, snow and ice. People were trapped in their cars on freeways overnight. Some made it to makeshift shelters in stores. School children were forced to remain at their schools over night. Matthew Miller spent part of one morning handing out food and drinks to motorists stranded on the Downtown Connector in Atlanta.
“Traffic was stopped all night so I just came out to give out some free food and hot drinks,” said Miller, who was dispensing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, various cereals and hot chocolate. “I saw on Facebook that people had been out here for 18 hours and were complaining of being hungry and thirsty and just thought I would try to help out any way I could,” Miller said.
Due to the number of accidents involving tractor-trailers, tractor-trailers were advised not to enter Georgia at all. Tractor-trailers have been an enormous headache, clogging up interstates and requiring major equipment muscle and coordination to move.
GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long surveyed a bank of video screens at the Traffic Management Center and pointed to example after example of tractor-trailer tie-ups. “What’s in common in every single accident we have today?” Long said. “Tractor trailers.”
Meanwhile California saw record low rainfall for the month of January. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. Many areas closed out the month with zero measurable precipitation, including the Los Angeles Civic Center, San Diego, Riverside, Fullerton and Santa Maria.
About two-thirds of California is gripped by “severe” or “exceptional” drought, the most severe conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website. Nine percent of the state – all in the San Joaquin Valley – is considered exceptionally dry, according to the website. It’s the state’s most severe drought since at least 1977, according to Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District.
With California’s snowpack at just 12 percent of the average for this period, the state Water Resources Department said Jan. 31 that it was allocating no water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to local water agencies, the first time in state history. Snowmelt and rain feeding the delta makes it the single largest source for California’s 38 million residents and 25.4 million acres of farmland.
The three-year long drought plaguing the western United States is only likely to get worse over the next year, forecasters and climate scientists say, given a dismal snowpack that has officials in many states worried.
The stakes are high for California, the country’s most populous state with 38 million residents. It has a $44.7 billion agricultural industry that generates more than $100 billion in related economic activity. California produces nearly half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables and it is the leading dairy state. The state’s farm cash receipts in 2012 were $13 billion more than that of Iowa, the No. 2 agricultural state. Because California farms depend heavily on irrigation to sustain production during the dry season, drought constitutes a dire threat to the state’s economy. Farmers are applying for unemployment.
The potential for devastating fires is great as California vegetation just gets dryer and dryer. Across California, vegetation that typically rehydrates with rain between December and April continues to get dryer and more dangerous. The fires so far this winter have been relatively moderate compared with some of the state’s largest, but officials worry that the fires will get worse as the fuel gets even dryer.
California is bracing for what officials fear could be an unprecedented fire season fueled by record dry conditions that show no signs of letting up.