TERRE HAUTE —
If you had to step outside to get your newspaper this morning, you might have noticed it’s painfully cold once again.
Temperatures were expected to be about 4 degrees overnight, forcing schools to start two hours late and making it hard for cars to start and unpleasant for folks to be outside for even a brief moment.
Oddly enough, temperatures were about 40 degrees warmer just two days ago, which is the sort of pattern we’ve seen so far this winter.
“It’s been a winter of extremes,” said WTWO-TV meteorologist Jesse Walker, who has been forecasting and studying weather patterns in the Wabash Valley since 1985. We’ve seen two record low temperatures so far this winter and had a couple of near-record highs, he said.
What’s more, the pattern has been like a brisk, nausea-inducing roller coaster ride: A couple of days of warm weather followed by a couple of days of very cold or snowy weather, over and over.
“We’ve not had any extended breaks,” Walker said. In past few winters, we’ve often seen warm spells lasting a week or 10 days between bouts of very cold temps. “But we really haven’t seen that this year,” he said. “I think that’s what’s getting people down.”
Something else new this winter is the common usage of the term “polar vortex.” Ever since the frigid temps in early January, it seems every week we’re hearing about another approaching “polar vortex.”
“I’m not sure why [the term] has caught on all of the sudden,” said Joe Skowronek, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Indianapolis. Polar vortexes are not new, but this year they’ve become the talk of social media sites and water coolers everywhere.
A polar vortex exists in the Arctic and is a large system of low pressure. Surface temperatures in the true polar vortex can reach 40 or 50 below zero, Skowronek said. Every once in a while, a piece of that low pressure system will break off and move south, he said. That’s when we get some extremely cold temperatures farther south.
According to the National Weather Service, one of the coldest days of the 20th century was Jan. 21, 1985 when a polar vortex extended its reach all the way to Florida and the Carolinas where temperatures dipped below zero. Citrus farmers in Florida suffered billions in losses, President Reagan’s second inaugural was took place inside the Capitol building instead of outdoors and temperatures in Terre Haute reached minus 21.
The record cold recorded at WTWO-TV in Farmersburg was minus 31 in 1994, Walker said. “I worked that night,” he said. “I’ll never forget that night.”
Polar vortexes are huge. It can cover one-third or half of Canada, Skowronek said. But they are normal every winter and are nothing new this year.
It’s famously tough to know what the weather will be more than a few days out, but Walker thinks the current weather patterns are pointing to more cold temperatures next week – with a few days dropping below zero later this week and again next week. The average winter in our area has only three or four days below zero, Walker said. We’ve already gotten three this winter with possibly that many again in just the next week, he said.
In the past two winters, temperatures failed to drop below zero in Terre Haute even once, Walker said. That’s unusual, but it’s also allowed us to forget how cold a winter can be. Even so, this winter is far from being a record in terms of snowfall or cold temperatures, he noted.
The coldest winter on record for this area was the winter of 1976-77, Walker said. The average temperature for that winter was 20.7 degrees. This winter’s average, so far, is 28.4.
The biggest snowfall for the area on record was in 1981-82. The area received 63 inches of snow that winter. So far, this winter, the area has received 20.6 inches, Walker said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org