North America’s weirdly cold weather, in one cool map


It’s freaking cold out there, America. But you don’t need a Vox explainer to know that. You knew it the second you woke up. Knew it in that dreadful moment just before peeling off the blankets, when you thought, This is the warmest and most comfortable I’ll feel all day.

The East Coast is in the teens and 20s. Temperatures in the Midwest are hovering near zero Fahrenheit. The brave, brave residents of International Falls, Minnesota, had to face negative 36 degrees (!!!) on Wednesday morning. At that temperature, some preparations of automotive antifreeze will freeze. Record-breaking lake effect snows are blanketing Great Lake shores.

And the forecast is grim. Temperatures are expected to continue to drop through the start of the new year. The national average is expected to be around 10 degrees New Year’s morning, the Washington Post reports, “with about a third of locations below zero.”

But this cold is not like your normal December cold. It’s extreme for this time of year. “Temperature anomalies on Saturday could be as much as 30 to 35 degrees below normal,” the National Weather Center warned in its national outlook.

And it’s pretty unusual considering that most of the world is warmer than usual for late December, as this map from University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute shows.

The world on December 28 was .5-degrees Celsius warmer on average, compared to the average temperatures from 1979 to 2000. But parts of North America are 10 to 20 degrees below average. (Which goes to show: Yes, it can be very, very cold outside, but climate change is still happening the world over.)

So what’s happening? As Mashable’s Andrew Freeman explains, we can blame a northward shift in the jet stream in the Northern Pacific around Alaska. The Arctic jet stream is an area of fast-moving air high in the atmosphere that acts to separate regions of cold and warmer air.

The northward surge in the jet stream around Alaska means temperatures are actually warmer there than normal. This northward movement of the jet stream around Alaska then caused another section of it to dip into the Eastern US. As a consequence, freezing air around Hudson Bay is descending southward. Brrr.

And that cold has consequences. One is all the extra fuel we have to burn to keep warm. “Total U.S. [natural] gas consumption jumped 31 percent to 115.7 billion cubic feet on Tuesday from Friday,” Bloomberg reports. “That’s the most ever for this time of year.” Prices (which were already expect to rise across the board this winter) are expected to increase with the demand.

It’s also worth remembering that winter cold is dangerous. At zero Fahrenheit, and 15 mph winds, frostbite can set in on exposed skin in 30 minutes. And winter cold kills more Americans every year than summer heat.

Here’s the National Weather Service’s chart showing your frostbite risk for different temperatures and wind speeds (aka windchill).

Stay safe out there!