The South sees below-freezing temperatures

Arctic warming disrupts lives in the U.S.


The proprietors of Street Medicine Kansas City stand outside of their warming center to welcome the homeless inside on February 13. (Photo courtesy of @streetmedicinekc on Instagram)

Beginning in mid-February and dying down towards the end of the month, the southern and midwestern regions of the United States faced extreme weather and temperatures not often seen in these locales. According to BBC, on Feb. 13, some areas of Texas reached 0 degrees Fahrenheit, or -18 degrees Celsius. Texas has not seen temperatures this extreme in more than 30 years.

Sharon Stutz, who teaches CP Biology at Oak Park High School, explained how these frigid temperatures were most likely, ironically, caused by warm weather in the Arctic. According to Stutz, the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the global average, as a result of climate change, and is, in turn, impacting the Earth’s weather systems. In this case, the Arctic warming disrupted the polar vortex, a semi-permanent weather system which naturally occurs each winter.

“A phenomenon called Severe Stratospheric Warming began in the Arctic. The Arctic warmed rapidly and disrupted a spinning mass of cold air: the polar vortex. Normally, there [is a] jet stream, [which] winds around the vortex and acts as a lasso of sorts, keeping the cold air trapped inside,” Stutz said.

However, when temperatures increase in the Arctic, the jet stream is affected. The jet stream is powered by a large difference between warm and cold air; the bigger that difference is, the stronger the jet stream. When the cold air becomes warmer due to climate change, that difference is reduced, and the jet stream, which contains the cold air, is weakened.

“When it gets warm in the Arctic, the … temperature contrast mechanism which powers the … jet stream weakens and elongates, allowing the cold air to plummet southward. In this event, [the polar vortex] dropped 4,000 miles from its point of origin, causing the extreme weather in the South,” Stutz said.

On Feb. 14, President Joe Biden declared that Texas was in a state of emergency. Because of the need for electricity during the below-freezing temperatures (to heat houses, cook, etc.), the power grid began to fail and rolling blackouts were imposed. This left around 4.3 million people with no electricity, no heat and no running water. According to the New York Times, 58 people had died from causes related to the storms as of February 23.

Greta Linebach-DeHart, a former OPHS student and current junior in high school, is a resident of Kansas City, Kansas, while her extended family lives in Missouri and Tennessee. She described how for about a week and a half, temperatures where she lived ranged from 15 to -10 degrees Celsius.

“It snowed almost everyday, so I had to shovel the driveway, which happens to be pretty steep. Afterwards, my back would hurt and my fingers would be frozen, even with gloves on,” Linebach wrote to the Talon.

Kansas City, though not technically in the South, was not spared from blackouts either. With everyone stuck at home, because of both the weather and the COVID-19 pandemic, whole neighborhoods had their televisions, stoves, lights and other devices on at once. Most importantly, almost every single house kept their heat on throughout the storms as temperatures dropped.

“Houses were using an exponential amount of heat. This resulted in scheduled power outages throughout Kansas City to conserve power. Before the outage, we put blankets by all the doors leading outside to keep all the hot air in that we could,” Linebach wrote.

Karen Brewer, a public health professional based in the Washington, D.C. area, believes that these blackouts are not only indications of the effects of climate change, but also of ways in which low-income citizens are especially vulnerable during crises. With the pandemic putting the inequities of American society in the spotlight, the storms were one more way that the disadvantaged suffered as a result of profits being prioritized over people. 

“The most glaring tradeoff is in corporate profits (ie. utility companies in Texas) versus in the health [and] well-being of low income [or] vulnerable populations (ie. workers in meat-packing plants during a pandemic or low income immigrant families who are living in crowded, multigenerational households amidst a pandemic, etc.),” Brewer wrote to the Talon. “There are differences across these groups in terms of who has power to make the decisions that drive the overall direction of society. That is, do you own a utility company? Or do you live in a trailer with kids?” 

The pandemic made this bout of extreme weather even more complicated. Unable to access crowded, indoor public spaces, which usually provide free heat, electricity and Wi-Fi, without risk of infection, people, especially the poor and homeless, had nowhere to go. As a result, the normal procedures for below-freezing temperatures had to be thrown out the window.

“Typically in a storm like this, people survive—and even thrive—by coming together and helping one another. COVID-19 has upended that pattern because congregating in large groups puts people at risk. So, basic steps that would normally help to keep people safe, like setting up shelters where people can go inside and stay warm–become more logistically complicated,” Brewer wrote.

The cold didn’t just affect people’s home lives. Most citizens of the South and Midwest have to drive to work, especially during storms, when it is impossible to walk or bike. With roads dangerously icy, however, many didn’t know how or whether to show up to work. While officials urged citizens to stay home (AP News), for some, this was impossible. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with unemployment still much higher than pre-COVID percentages in the United States, no one wanted to miss a day of work and risk losing their only source of income during a pandemic.

“The cold weather mainly affected my work. I work four days a week, and I was always worried about getting into an accident because of the icy roads. I was also getting really tired of having to take bags of food to people’s cars in negative-degree weather,” Linebach wrote.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has been in the midst of much controversy regarding his handling of the extreme snowstorms in his state. While many of his citizens were left without heat and power, freezing or even dying, Cruz decided to jet off with his wife and daughters to Cancún to avoid, as written in his wife’s text messages, the “FREEZING” weather, according to the New York Times.

However, other officials and community leaders have been leading the way in helping their fellow citizens. Jae Bennett, the owner of a homeless shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, opened his doors to many members of the homeless community, who were left on the streets without shelter in below-zero weather. Though Bennett had to let in more than his 37-person COVID capacity limit (The New York Times), he felt the decision was worth it in order to save his fellow citizens from possibly freezing to death.

Many homeless shelters took in as many people as they could with respect towards Coronavirus policies. Other facilities like the YMCA would open their doors for shelter as well. I feel like our state did a good job [in general],” Linebach wrote.

Brewer views the opening of homeless shelters to amounts of people over the COVID capacity limit as a complex issue. Again, while the specifics of the opening of the shelter introduces problems regarding the virus, the fact that there are people in a first world country who were freezing to death is a much larger problem in and of itself.

“I think the real question is why there are people living on the streets during snowstorms in one of the world’s wealthiest countries,” Brewer wrote. “The public health approach to this issue is called ‘Housing First.’ The idea is to give homeless people housing, without requiring them to first deal with requirements like having a job. Once they have a stable place to live, they are better able to keep themselves (and [their] surrounding communities) health[y].”

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the environment and the lives of the people who inhabit it. This bout of snowstorms, which have now thankfully died down, is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new trend in extreme weather. More locally, California wildfires are becoming increasingly frequent and widespread, along with droughts.

While there are naturally-occurring phenomena, I think there is no doubt that climate change is affecting our weather patterns and causing extreme weather,” Stutz wrote. “Some research seems to indicate that 70% of the 405 extreme weather events and trends were found to be made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.”