The mercury sank in Lonestar state on Sunday evening while flashing from snow and ice, causing nearly impossible driving conditions and hundreds of vehicle accidents. Officials have urged residents not to travel amid increasing numbers of cars and trucks spinning out of control on social media.
Houston Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports have closed and all flights from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport were also canceled on Monday morning.
For the first time, the entire state of Texas was warned of a winter storm on Sunday. Those warnings of dangerous levels of ice and snow extended to all of Arkansas and most of Louisiana, Mississippi, and western and northern Alabama on Monday, extending northeast through much of the Tennessee and Ohio valleys and the interior northeast.
In Texas, officials have warned that people could die of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of generators. The economic burden on agriculture could be surging, and insurance meteorologists expect this event, which should last through the week, will end at a billion dollar cost.
Houston Intercontinental Airport dropped to 17 degrees early Monday, the coldest value since December 23, 1989. Tuesday morning’s low could be even colder – just 11 degrees the National Weather Service forecast. The wind chill on Tuesday morning is expected to be only 1 degree.
“Dangerous, life and property threatening the bitterly cold air will remain even after the downfall has ceased,” the Houston weather service wrote early Monday.
Farther north, the wind chill dropped to minus 40 and minus 50 in parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado early Monday.
Widespread power outages
In Texas, the millions of blackouts have been associated with record demand, a grid independent of the surrounding states, poor natural gas supplies, sky-high prices and reduced performance from the state’s many wind turbines.
Oncor, Texas’ largest electricity company, which serves 10 million customers, said Monday morning that power supply shortages are causing power outages for much longer than originally anticipated. “Outages due to this electrical emergency can last hours and we ask that you be prepared,” he wrote.
Texas’ Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) warns against continuing to run mostly short-term, rolling power outages across the state as energy demand exceeds supply.
According to ERCOT, there have been three cases of rotating failures during a power emergency alert due to weather events in Texas, the first of which occurred in 1989. Energy demand in the state of Lonestar is expected to reach an all-time high.
“At the highest point, around 10,500 megawatts of customer load were lost,” said ERCOT in a press release, in which the step of electricity reduction to reduce network demand was described. “This is enough electricity to supply around two million households.”
“Extreme weather conditions meant that many generating units – across different fuel types – were triggered offline and were no longer available.” According to ERCOT, around 30,000 megawatts of electricity were lost due to the cold and snowy conditions. “Every grid operator and electricity company is struggling to restore power,” said Bill Magness, President and CEO of ERCOT.
For 36-year-old Cody Miller from Austin, the extreme weather conditions in his part of Texas have caused “chaos”: closed schools, unploughed roads, long power outages and shockingly cold temperatures.
Miller had been without power since around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning. At 10 a.m., the temperature in his East Austin home swung around 50 degrees with no clear instructions from utility companies as to when it could be restored.
It was the second time in a week that it lost power after a 10 hour outage on Thursday. “There’s no real communication and 311 is pretty fancy,” said Miller, who works in the telecommunications industry.
Most of the local energy comes from Austin Energy and electrical cooperatives, which Miller said the demand they will see is speculative. “There are just a lot of people who use electricity and cause these spikes. I don’t think the demand was expected, ”he said. “In summer we have peaks all the time because it’s hot, but that’s expected – you know there will be 20 consecutive 100-degree days.”
The lifelong Texan said Monday weather was like nothing he’s seen before, but noted that he was fortunate to have his fiancée familiar with cold weather situations. “She’s from Wisconsin so we have someone here who has seen it.”
Cold is unusually widespread
The punishment of cold, ice, and snow hits Louisiana as well, including some of the areas devastated by hurricanes just months ago. The extraordinary cold affects about 30 conditions with temperatures up to 50 degrees below normal.
According to Greg Carbin of the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma, the area currently covered by winter storm warnings in the continental United States is larger than the land area of Alaska.
Several counties along the immediate Texas coast near Houston had never been warned of a winter storm until this week. When the first wave of snow and ice retreated on Monday, the record cold was intensified by north winds that caused dangerous wind chill.
After the day started at minus 5 degrees, Oklahoma City was forecast to reach a high of only 4 degrees for an afternoon high. This is below the city’s previous record low. It’s also only 2 degrees from Oklahoma City’s coldest high.
Kansas City reported a wind chill of minus 32 degrees, the coldest since 1989.
Dallas reached 5 degrees on Monday morning, the coldest value since 1989. Likewise, Oklahoma City could fall to minus 7 on Tuesday morning, also the coldest since 1989. In Dallas, the average high on February 14 is 58 degrees, the average low is 42 degrees.
The dynamic system was so extreme that it was the first time some meteorologists predicted ocean-effect snow over the bays of the Gulf of Mexico. “Of course, [I] I have no experience predicting such things, ”wrote a weather service meteorologist in an online forecasting discussion. “Some thunderstorms /[snow] mixed for fun – even on the beaches. “
Thundersleet and Thundersnow have even been spotted along the beaches in Houston and Galveston. One Twitter user wrote that he has “seen more lightning than [during] most of the summer. “
In Houston, emergency officers set off a wireless emergency alert indicating that “life-threatening road conditions are about to spread into Harris County,” while Art Acevedo, the chief of police, reported more than 100 accidents, including a 10-car heap on Sunday evening.
The Houston weather service, which initially warned of the “extreme” effects of this system, wrote on Monday morning: “*** ROADS ARE DANGEROUS – STAY WHERE YOU ARE ***.”
Hundreds of strikes have been observed. A major thunderstorm with cloud-to-ground lightning was also observed in Lake Charles, La., Less than six months ago, the same community that was hit by successive hurricanes Laura and Delta two months ago.
The cold weather comes directly from the North Pole via Siberia after the polar vortex circulation was interrupted in January. It helps set off two major storm systems, the first of which threw snow and ice on Sunday evening and Monday morning, and the second was out on Wednesday.
Oklahoma City measured about 5 to 8 inches of snow across the metropolitan area, slightly more than what had fallen to the west in Amarillo, Tex.
Abilene, Tex., Reported a general 8 to 11 inches, with variations up to 18 inches tall. San Angelo was 10 inches. Preliminary reports also suggest that Dallas-Fort Worth has fallen 4 to 6 inches. If the official total at the airport is more than 5 inches, it will be the third largest blizzard in the city since 1974.
Webcam images showed snow on Galveston’s beaches. “We got someone on the beach to make a snow angel,” said Kent Prochazka, chief meteorologist at the Houston Weather Service Office. He said the effects of a cold snap like this, including the risk of burst pipes in many homes and businesses, “are so rare here that a lot of preparation is required.”
Donald Jones, a meteorologist with the Lake Charles, La. Meteorological Service, said the area was particularly vulnerable to extreme cold due to the double hurricanes last year. “Many residents live in caravans or emergency shelters,” he said in an interview. “In the run-up to this event, there have been a lot of questions about pipe freezing as many people now have these exposed pipes. There is a larger homeless population than before the storms. “
Links to climate change
As the climate has warmed up due to human activity, cold snaps have become increasingly rare and less severe, while heat waves have become far more frequent and intense.
Winter is the fastest warming season in the United States. In Dallas, the lowest temperature seen each year has risen 7.9 degrees since 1970, according to research and communications group Climate Central.
There is also evidence that the rapid climate change in the Arctic, melting sea ice, is helping to disrupt larger weather patterns in the northern hemisphere, making polar air more likely to enter and leading to extreme heat waves during the summer. However, this is still an area of active scientific research.
Jason Samenow contributed to this article.