Bitter cold, frost quakes and waterspouts are heaped on icy misery

Bitter cold, frost quakes and waterspouts are heaped on icy misery
You could be forgiven for thinking that the worst of the weather was already behind us. Indeed, the first major snowstorm of the year has moved on.

But the Northeast and Midwest awoke Monday to a different icy misery: fierce winds and brutally cold temperatures that had plunged overnight. Wind chill reports reached as low as -40 degrees Celsius in upstate New York, cold enough to cause frostbite in 10 minutes.

People clear snow off of a sidewalk along Lark Street on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. The brutal drop in temperatures across the Northeast and Midwest was spurred by the effect of a low-pressure weather system that brought snow in recent days being followed by a high-pressure system.  (Paul Buckowski / Associated Press)

Waterspouts — which look like tornadoes, though they form differently — were spotted over Long Island Sound. The sight of huge rotating columns led the National Weather Service to issue a special marine warning that they were powerful enough to “easily overturn boats.”

Across the Northeast, there were also reports of “frost quakes,” where the ground froze and expanded so quickly that it set off frightening noises — loud booms and sounds of cracking.

All of it was the result not just of the cold, but of how quickly temperatures dropped.

Experts pointed to several factors. One culprit: the polar vortex, a giant mass of cold air normally contained above the North Pole by strong bands of circulating winds. In recent weeks, the vortex has broken apart, with one block of cold air escaping into Canada and the United States, and another into Europe.

Winter storm brings snow, rain, wind and cold to Eastern, Central Canada

“It’s sort of like a dam bursting into two or three pieces, and those pieces took the cold air with them,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a weather risk-assessment firm. “The polar vortex is the enabler, and it set the table for the weather we’re now seeing.”

At the same time, meteorologists said, the brutal drop in temperatures was also spurred by the effect of a low-pressure weather system that brought snow in recent days being followed by a high-pressure system.

Imagine an electric mixer, with two spindles circulating in opposite directions. The low-pressure system rotated counterclockwise, and the high-pressure system arrived behind it, rotating clockwise. From there, the systems worked in tandem to suck cold air from the Northwest into regions that had just been pummeled with up to 2 feet of snow.

“You had two weather systems spinning in opposite directions, so that combination is what is basically drawing down the colder air from Canada,” said Ryan Hanrahan, chief meteorologist at WVIT, the NBC station in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Much of New York and New England was under a wind chill warning Monday, with readings well below zero.

But the most dramatic manifestation of the swift temperature drop may have been the waterspouts, which were captured in photos and videos shot by bystanders in places like Montauk, New York, and Niantic Bay, Connecticut. There, funnels swirled high above the water.

A sharp difference between the temperatures of the water and the air caused the waterspouts. According to Hanrahan, as of early Monday afternoon the temperature in the water was about 3 C. But 2,500 feet above, at cloud level, it was 25 degrees below zero.

At least a half-dozen deaths have been blamed on severe weather that has moved across the country since last week. The fatalities included people killed in two car crashes in Missouri on Saturday, a utility subcontractor who was hit by a falling tree while repairing a power line in Connecticut on Sunday, and a 12-year-old girl who died from asphyxia and hypothermia near Chicago after a snow fort she and a friend built collapsed while their parents were at church.

The weather also hit travellers hard Monday. There were more than 1,200 flight cancellations and more than 4,000 flight delays, according to FlightAware, the flight-tracking company.

As the bone-chilling cold swept New York City, more than 10,000 low-income residents who live in public housing contended with heat and hot water outages, forcing many to fend off the cold by turning on their ovens or trying to stay warm in bed.

“I’m about to send them home,” said Bailey, who said she suffers from asthma. “It’s too cold for them here.”

Her landlord is the New York City Housing Authority, the largest public housing system in the country, which has been intensely scrutinized for widespread heating failures and dilapidated conditions in the thousands of apartments that 400,000 New Yorkers call home.

“That’s life here,” Bailey said. “We are used to it. We’ve got to find our own ways to stay warm.”
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