Rare and Dangerous Ice Storm Hits Deep South; Extreme Cold in the Midwest
A rare and dangerous ice storm has begun in the Deep South, where Winter Storm Leon is tracking along the northern Gulf Coast, spreading a nasty mix of freezing rain, sleet, cold rain, and snow along a swath from Central Texas to Eastern Virginia. At 8 am CST, freezing rain was falling at a temperature of 28°F in Austin, Texas, where a 20-car pileup on an overpass was reported, as well as at least ten other car crashes in a 30-minute time span. A portion of Interstate 35 was closed due to the crashes and icing. Freezing rain was falling on the north side of Houston, Texas, and in Mobile Alabama, this morning; snow was falling in Jackson Mississippi, and sleet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The National Weather Service has posted Freezing Rain Advisories along a swath from Eastern Texas across Southern Louisiana, Southern Mississippi, Southern Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, almost all of Georgia and South Carolina, and into Eastern North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Ice accumulations of 1/4" - 1/2" are expected in much of this area, with isolated higher amounts. Snows of 1 - 4" are possible just to the north of the freezing rain swath, with heavier amounts of 6 - 12" across southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. The ice storm has the potential to cause significant damage to trees and power lines, resulting in widespread power outages. Travel will be very dangerous in a region unaccustomed to extreme winter weather.
Figure 1. Ice builds up on the Chicago River as temperatures drop below zero on January 27, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Extreme cold in the Midwest
An unusually sharp southwards dip of the jet stream is allowing intensely cold air to spill southwards out of the Arctic and over the eastern half of the United States. The most extreme cold Tuesday morning was over the Upper Midwest, where the temperature fell to -35° in Northern Minnesota in Longville, with a dangerously low wind chill of -47°. Chicago bottomed out at -11°, with a wind chill of -30°, at 7 am CST. In Detroit, the low hit -10°, with a wind chill of -27°. Wind chill levels that low are extremely rare in Southeast Lower Michigan, and the dangerously cold conditions prompted officials at the University of Michigan to cancel classes on Tuesday for only the fourth time since the college was founded in 1817 (the other closures came in January 1978, 1974, and 1945, according to a Dec. 7, 2006 article published in the Michigan Daily.) The latest round of snow on Monday brought the January total snowfall for Detroit to 37.1", establishing a new all-time January snowfall record. It's getting so the snowbanks surrounding my driveway are so high, I can't throw the snow over them! This morning it hit -18° at my backyard PWS, marking the 12th day this month with a temperature of -10° or colder. It's truly been a winter to remember in Michigan in 2014.
The historic February 1994 Southeast U.S. ice storm
Damage from today's Southeast U.S. ice storm may well run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, but it will not compare to the damage from the most expensive ice storm in U.S. history, the great February 1994 Southeast U.S. ice storm. That storm killed nine people and caused $4.7 billion (2013 dollars) of damage in portions of TX, OK, AR, LA, MS, AL, TN, GA, SC, NC, and VA. At least 2 million customers were without electricity at some point, and 1/2 million were still without power three days after the storm. Hardest hit was Northern Mississippi, which was deluged with 4 - 5" of freezing rain that created flooding problems. Ice thicknesses of 3.5 - 5.5 inches were common in the state, causing catastrophic damage estimated at $3 billion. Some residents were without power one month after the storm.
Figure 2. Number of blizzard warnings issued so far during the winter of 2013 - 2014 show that the Upper Midwest is giving Alaska a run for its money--a very unusual state of affairs! Image credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet. Thanks go to TWC's Jon Erdman for providing this link.
62° in Alaska
The cold air flowing out of the Arctic into the eastern half of the U.S. is being replaced by warm air surging northwards over Alaska and the North Atlantic east of Greenland. The warmth in Alaska the past three days has been particularly astonishing, with Alaska observing its all-time warmest January temperature of 62° on Monday 1/27 at the Port Alsworth Climate Reference Network station, according to Rick Thoman of NWS Fairbanks. This ties the January state record set at Petersburg on January 16, 1981. Port Alsworth is about 160 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Nome, Alaska recorded a high of 51°F on Monday. This was 38° above average, and the warmest temperature ever observed in any November through March in Nome since record keeping began in 1907. Ironically, exactly 25 years ago, Nome recorded its lowest temperature on record--a bone-chilling -54° on January 27, 1989. Nome is located about 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and has just 6 1/2 hours of daylight this time of year.
According to Wunderground's weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, in his latest post, Record Warmth in Alaska Contrasts Cold Wave in Eastern U.S., all-time January heat records have been set over the past three days in Nome, Denali Park, Palmer, Homer (twice), Alyseka, Seward, and Talkeetna. Bolio Lake Range Complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, located about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, hit 60° on Sunday. This is only 2° short of the all-time state January heat record of 62° set at Petersburg in Jan 1981, according to NCDC records.
Snowstorms in the Southeast and Deep South of the United States: An Historical Perspective, 2011 blog post by our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt.
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.
Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather