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.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

Why You Need to Keep Your Car's Gas Tank Full in Cold Weather

iStock.com/Chalabala
iStock.com/Chalabala

Schools, trains, and the U.S. Postal Service have shut down this week as a polar vortex brings negative double-digit temperatures to the Midwest. Even if residents won't be doing much traveling as long as the dangerous weather persists, they'd benefit from keeping a full tank of gas in their cars: According to the Detroit Free Press, it's an easy way to prevent fuel lines from freezing.

One common reason cars struggle to start in cold weather is blocked-up fuel lines. These tubes are thin, and if there's any moisture in them when temperatures drop to extreme levels, they can freeze, causing blockages that prevent fuel from flowing.

Gasoline, on the other hand, doesn't freeze as easily. It maintains its liquid state in subzero temperatures, like those currently hitting parts of the U.S., so when a gas tank is full, those fuel lines are better equipped to handle to the cold.

If you filled up your tank before the recent cold snap and your car still won't start, it may have something to do with your antifreeze levels. Your car's radiator needs water to work properly, and antifreeze is what keeps the water liquid when temperatures dip below 32°F.

Of course, if temperatures have already dropped to dangerous levels in your area, it's not worth it to drive to the gas station to refuel or run out to stock up on antifreeze. Instead, keep these car maintenance tips in mind for the next time an arctic blast rolls in to town. And when it is safe enough to drive again, resist heating up your engine in the driveway: Letting your car idle in the cold can actually shorten the engine's lifespan.

[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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