Why the Weather on the Great Plains Is So Extreme

Brandi Simons/Getty Images
Brandi Simons/Getty Images

It can be tough to live on the Great Plains. The flat terrain gives way to breathtaking views of both land and sky, but the smooth, fertile land is both good fortune and a curse when it comes to the weather. Whether it's an enormous thunderstorm or a ferocious blizzard, there's rarely a dull day when it comes to weather in the middle of the country. Just what is it about the central United States that makes the weather there so extreme?

The unique geography that makes this part of the country so grand is what exposes it to some of the most extreme weather nature can produce. The Plains are bounded by the Rocky Mountains to the west, the Canadian Prairies to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. The tall, jagged mountains of the Rockies act like an atmospheric dam, forcing hot air from the south and cold air from the north to pool up over the Plains. This helps to trigger some of the most interesting weather in the world.

Most major weather events around the world are set in motion by jet streams, which are fast-moving currents of air that wrap around the planet. Straight, rigid jet streams don't result in much interesting weather, but things can get wild when the jet stream grows wavy. Sharp dips in the jet stream, called troughs, can cause low-pressure systems to develop at the surface.

When these troughs clear the Rocky Mountains in the western U.S., diverging winds in the upper atmosphere cause air to rise from the surface, leading to the development of a low-pressure system over the Plains. These lows can be the size of a single state or sprawl across the entire country from north to south. We see these storm systems most often during the winter and spring, when the jet stream is most active over the United States.

The flat land acts like an expressway, helping these fledgling low-pressure systems draw enormous amounts of tropical air from the south and, during the winter, extremely cold air from deep in the Arctic. The lack of natural obstacles allows this air to flow toward storm systems virtually unimpeded, which can lead to explosive thunderstorms during the warm months and powerful and bone-chilling blizzards during the winter.

This atmospheric expressway doesn't stop at precipitation; it's also why the central Plains can have brutal heat waves and bitter cold snaps. It's not uncommon for areas in the north-central United States to struggle to climb above 0°F for days at a time during the dead of winter, and it's similarly common for places like Oklahoma and Texas to see temperatures above 100°F for a week or longer during the summer's worst heat.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds

iStock
iStock

As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]

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