Polar Vortex Hits Campus

The snow and extreme cold that lasted a week caused the University to close for two days and delay for one.

Sean Mickalitis 

News Editor

Last week, ESU received its first significant snowfall of the spring semester. The storm walloped parts of the Midwest before heading to the Northeast to unleash its fury.

In our area, the storm began Tuesday morning as a light snowfall, but it quickly prompted the cancellation of classes by some professors, followed by all classes canceled for courses beginning at 11 p.m. or after.

Throughout the day, the snowfall escalated, leaving a bustling campus nearly vacant and blanketed. When the storm ended Tuesday evening, it left East Stroudsburg with roughly 5 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

Classes resumed Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., but one student found getting to class, even with the delay, to be troublesome because not all roads were clear.

“[I heard] reports of people sliding and running off the road then turning around. I personally struggled to get my car unstuck,” said Junior Tanner Fritz, describing classmates’ and his commute to class Wednesday morning.

“ESU has students that commute from all over as it is a central point where Pa., N.Y. and N.J. all somewhat meet. I personally know people who have at least an hour commute daily, others who live in more rural areas where the streets are not as effectively cleaned,” said Fritz.

Last week’s snowstorm not only brought snow, slippery roads, and stuck cars, in its wake, it ushered in arctic air that dropped temperatures below zero, causing campus to close. The Polar plunge seen last week is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the area and across the country.

The extreme temperatures felt last week were not an isolated occurrence. Along with students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community, 70 million Americans experienced temperatures below zero, according to the Weather Channel.

The NWS issued a wind chill warning and stated that the extreme cold could cause frostbite to exposed skin in as little as 30 minutes. Heeding the warning and following suit with universities across Pennsylvania, ESU officials closed the university on Thursday, Jan. 31.

It was colder on campus than in many of the most frigid regions of the world. That morning, East Stroudsburg’s low was nearly negative 11 F, whereas, in McMurdo, Antarctica, the low was 15 F, according to Weather Underground.

Over the last few years, these “polar plunges” or “polar vortexes” are becoming more common, but what exactly causes frigid arctic air to shift thousands of miles south?

“Every so often, cold air doesn’t stay in one place. It drips down. When that happens, it gets cold here. Of course, if some cold air comes down from the pole, there’s probably warm air being pushed up through Alaska and California, and that’s making it warm in the Arctic. It’s a relatively normal process,” said Physics Department Chair Dr. Robert Cohen.

“What is concerning to some scientist is that leakage of cold air from the north seems to be more prevalent. There seems to be a loss in stability,” said Dr. Cohen.

In a study conducted by Dr. Marlene Kretschmer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and her colleagues, found that the stratospheric polar vortex has weakened over the past four decades; though the study does not conclude why it is happening due to many variables, a warming Arctic could be a contributing factor.

The Arctic sea ice extent has declined since 1980, and this past summer, the sea ice reached its annual minimum extent on Sept. 23, the latest it has ever been, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Data from the NSIDC indicates last summer temperatures in the Chukchi, Beaufort and East Siberian seas were 5 to 14 degrees F above average, which is a factor in the sea ice’s delayed annual minimum extent. A high-pressure ridge over the Bering Sea contributed to warm, sunny days in Alaska and subsequently hindered the development of sea ice after the minimum extent was reached.

A weakened stratospheric polar vortex along with above average temperatures in the Bering Sea and Alaska could have caused the extreme temperatures experienced last week, and if trends continue, more deep freezes could occur in the future.

Some students were pleased with ESU’s decision to close campus because of the temperatures.

“I was happy about the responses with ESU because it was quite frigid this past week. The decision to cancel all classes on Thursday was a nice surprise for me,” said Senior Drake Pristash.

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