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Illustration by Security Management

Unusual Weather Pattern Creates Emergencies

The temperature in Austin, Texas, an hour or so after sunrise Tuesday morning was 11 degrees Fahrenheit. At roughly the same time, still under cover of darkness, it was 20 Farenheit in Anchorage, Alaska.

This weather oddity was created when the jet stream dipped far to the south allowing the polar vortex, which normally circulates cold air over the Arctic, to pump cold air in behind it. It is not unusual for the upper Midwest of the United States and central Canada to see bouts of intense cold. What makes this event unusual is just how far south it reaches. As many as 4.7 million power customers in Northern Mexico had power outages due to impacts of the cold temperatures.

The cold air and associated snow and ice storms began last week and settled in over the weekend. Thursday morning, 11 February, slick road conditions contributed to an accident that involved 135 vehicles and killed six people in Fort Worth, Texas. As of Security Management's press time, 20 U.S. deaths have been attributed to the cold weather. Several U.S. states, including Texas, Mississippi, and Kansas, have declared states of emergency.

In addition to travel safety issues of slick roadways and closed airports, the largest impact of the storm is the stress put on the electric grid. As many as 5 million U.S. customers were without power Tuesday morning. Most of the outages were in Texas, where the Electric Reliability Council of Texas initiated rotating power outages beginning Sunday.

“This is the winter version of Hurricane Harvey,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott told a Houston television station, referencing a devastating hurricane that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in 2017. “And we will learn from this also, and we will come up with strategies to make sure there are available sources of power and energy so that things like do not happen again.”

The weather is likely to have at least a temporary effect on U.S. energy supplies. Texas and Oklahoma, two of the largest energy producing states, have seen many offices and facilities shut down because of the cold and winter weather.

“Some producers, especially in the Permian Basin and Panhandle, are experiencing unprecedented freezing conditions which caused concerns for employee safety and affected production,” the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said, according to a Reuters report.

The same report notes that power outages have affected gas pipelines across many U.S. states, including Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Texas.

The weather event is also altering vaccine schedules. Airport and road closures mean that supply in states unaffected by the weather emergency, such as Florida and Nevada, will face delays. Many vaccine sites across the Midwest and South have closed due to the weather, causing confusion. 

“With the current icy conditions expected to remain until at least tomorrow, we want to ensure the safety of the public," said one announcement from San Antonio's health department. "We also want to remind the public who may be concerned about the small delay for their second dose, that we are still within CDC guidelines to ensure the vaccine will still work with no issues.”

Unfortunately, it looks like contending with winter weather will not abate any time soon for most of the United States. The National Weather Service’s short-term forecast leads with the following announcements:

...Lingering areas of snow and freezing rain to cause travel concerns from
the eastern Great Lakes to New England this morning...

...Frigid Arctic air and dangerously cold wind chills to persist in the
Great Plains and Mississippi Valley through midweek...

...A new winter storm emerging in the Southern Plains on Tuesday heads for
the Mid-South on Wednesday...

On PBS Newshour, geosciences professor Dev Niyogi from the University of Texas discussed the weather pattern as a possible consequence of climate change, which predicts an increasing occurence of extreme weather events.

"We have to think of this as a hammer and a chisel. And what I mean by that is that we cannot control the storms. We cannot control, whether it's a hurricane, whether it's a heat wave, or whether it's going to be a cold snap such as this," Niyogi said. "But what we can control is, what can we do in terms of the infrastructure resources, the planning, the tools that are available to the community and the cities that can take care of it?

"And that is where we are at this point, that translation into that last mile. And we are certainly seeing right now that the energy grid has been stretched to its limit. And, looking forward, I'm sure there's going to be tremendous opportunities to rethink what we can do to improve the elasticity in that."

For more on how climate change influences security and risk management, see the day three program at ASIS Europe 2021.