With Limited Resources, Maywood Public Works Deals With ‘Drunken’ Polar Vortex

By Michael Romain

It’s called the Polar Vortex and despite its galactic-sounding name, its effects are immediate and very real–from delayed garbage pickups to school closings to transit shutdowns. According to biological anthropologist Gregg Laden, the Polar Vortex weather phenomenon is exactly as its name suggests. A vortex is defined as a “mass of whirling fluid or air, esp. a whirlpool or whirlwind.”

Laden writes that this whirlpool-like swirl of moving cold air we’re currently experiencing is the result of Arctic air that is ‘drunk’ (so to speak).

“The Polar Vortex,” he writes, “a huge system of swirling air that normally contains the polar cold air has shifted so it is not sitting right on the pole as it usually does.” The swirl of cold air that typically hovers around the North Pole has stumbled south, forcing entirely sober temperate regions, such as the American Midwest, to join the party (so to speak). The problem is that this isn’t exactly a party we want to be at.

Go Home Arctic, You're Drunk
Original image by http://www.emcwf.int; added text by Greg Laden/Science Blogs.

Although Maywood hasn’t had any major weather-related accidents since this frigid jet stream touched down, certain functions of the Village’s public works department have almost frozen in place.

“We’ve had two major storms hit us in less than nine days and there’s a lot of snow all over the Village, so it takes longer to clean up,” said Village Manager William Barlow.

“One storm lasted fifty hours and another lasted in excess of twenty-four hours. So we can’t get everything nice and neat in a short time like we could with shorter storms. These require a lot more commitment from public works forces.”

Mr. Barlow emphasized that, despite the icy pavement, putting down salt in these below freezing conditions would be practically useless. In order for the salt to melt and take effect, the temperature has to be above ten degrees. For now, public works trucks equipped with snow plows have been driving around town clearing streets and alleys. The Village has also issued robocalls to check on senior citizens and indigent residents. And those with nowhere warm to go have 24/7 access to the police station.

Of course, this brutally cold front won’t linger forever. And eventually, the freeze of winter will pass into spring’s thaw, but that doesn’t mean that things are exactly normal. It takes an extremist of denial and delusion to not question how such extreme cold weather vibes with Global Warming. The short answer is that it may vibe quite well. This Polar Vortex may have everything to do with Global Warming, but to really understand how the pieces could possibly fit together, it might help to re-conceptualize the idea. So, instead of imagining Global Warming, imagine the recent wave of crazy weather phenomena we’ve been experiencing as Global Weirding.

The term, perhaps coined by environmental activist Hunter Lovins and popularized by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, is actually a lot more precise and hews closer to what life in an age of gradually increasing global climate entails. As Friedman writes:

“Avoid the term “global warming.” I prefer the term ‘global weirding,’ because that is what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous.”

Laden writes that this extreme cold weather we’re currently experiencing is rather consistent with the warming (and consequent melting) going on in the North Pole. “[I]t is relatively warm up on the North Pole right now. Alaska and Europe are relatively warm as well.”

As the graphic above indicates, the cold air typical of the earth’s northern-most regions is expanding to encompass regions (like ours) that typically aren’t that cold. Although you can’t definitively conclude that the Polar Vortex is caused by Global Warming, the possibility that they’re definitely correlated cannot be ruled out.

In short, the past several years of more and more extreme weather occurrences–from record-breaking heat waves to record-breaking floods to record-breaking cold spells–seem to demonstrate that extreme weather events may be the new normal. The question that this Village’s elected officials and its citizenry will have to ultimately confront–and probably sooner rather than later–is how do we prepare for and adapt to this new normal? Taking it one storm at a time, or even one season at a time, just won’t do. VFP

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