Up date: 1/22/2015 Last year the Great Lakes froze over in one of the coldest winters on record for many years. We covered that event in the article republished below. This year at mid January the Great Lakes once again are not fully frozen and the media talk of "global warming has resumed. We explored what's really going on and report our results in the red letter updates to this article:
WHAT WE USED TO SIMPLY CALL A "BLUE NORTHER" IS NOW A "POLAR VORTEX". A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME CAN STILL FREEZE THE GREAT LAKES OVER.NAMAZU, 3,000 year old giant Japanese Catfish and former demigod turned analyst holds forth on a recent climate event.
Greetings bipeds and a special greeting to all of you bipeds in North America. I have been monitoring the maritime aspects of your recent cold spell. ( His catfishness is talking the 2014 winter here) The "Polar Vortex" really put a damper on your Great Lakes and many parts of your extensive inland shipping. I'd like to share my perspective of the event in terms of my 3,000 year memory. First as your English speaking wag Shakespeare was wont to say "a rose by any other name".... , I hope you aren't too perplexed by the introduction of the term "POLAR VORTEX". In the 1960s and 70s when many of you under the age of forty or so weren't yet born, there were about a half a dozen events of similar magnitude. The old folks of the DEEP SOUTH simply called them "Blue Northers", an infrequent but not unheard of event that could send subfreezing temperatures for a brief period all the way down to the Gulf Coast of the United States and deep into Florida. Of course when these "Blue Northers" hit the Gulf Coast with night time temperatures mostly extending 2 to 8 degrees below freezing what hit the North were single digit and below zero temperatures. Back then some local Southern TV weather analysts actually termed the event a "Blue Norther", but the national media coined the term "ARCTIC EXPRESS" as a popular term for describing the somewhat unusual set of steering currents and other converging weather elements that sometime combine to send extraordinarily cold weather exceptionally far south. Don't get thrown by the use of the term "POLAR VORTEX ". Some media wag looked up the more scientific term for these well known events and "Polar Vortex" became the standard displacing "Blue Norther" and "Arctic Express" which wasn't too difficult since those terms hadn't seen much use in recent years. I would bet you that this year's originator of the term was a twenty something journalists who came up with it in minutes on Google.
Don't worry, the Polar Vortex is a perfectly natural part of the Earth's "HEAT BUDGET". It is an extreme event like a hurricane, but just a weather event not a signal of climate change. ( We checked the Great Lakes Ice Cover record from about 1973 to 2012 at NOAA's Great Lakes. Environmental Research website. As usual the Catfish is spot on. Since 1973 we counted 16 times that the Great Lakes achieved nearly 90% ice cover or more and 6 time that they averaged 25% or less. Most years were somewhere in between those extremes. This is a bit of an over generalization however since no two lakes exhibited exactly the same percentage of ice cover) You can think of a hurricane as an extreme heat bubble leaving the tropics which would literally burn up without the global atmospheric and ocean circulatory systems that regulate the global temperatures. That circulatory system has some relief valves as it were for dissipating extreme temperatures. In the event of the Polar Vortex (ex "Blue Norther", ex "Arctic Express") the cold generator for the North American winter shifts from the more usual plains of Alberta (hence the "Alberta Clipper" designation associated with most cold fronts hitting the Mid Atlantic States and regions northward) to the colder north central Alaska region where the air is much more frigid and Arctic influenced. Aided by a change in higher atmospheric steering currents from the prevailing "westerlies" to more of a north north west to south south east flow this "heavy" cold air plunges very far south. It can often deliver extreme cooling effects right into the tropics where it doesn't freeze at lower elevations but those of us 60 and over can remember Castro making public appearances in Cuba in an army field coat, usually far more clothing than anyone would want to wear in a normal Havana January temperature in the 80s F. Think of it as an extreme "burp" of cold air. Sometimes the constantly circulatory systems that govern global temperatures get a bit overwhelmed and "pop a relief valve" giving us a weather phenomena like a "Polar Vortex or a hurricane or tropical storm. For a visual understanding of at least the ocean current portion of the global heat budget take a few moments and visit this site on YouTube: GLOBAL CURRENTS PICTORIAL then either click the back arrow or close to return here.
Those of us with memories that extend beyond sixty years remember when these "Blue Northers" , now "Polar Vortex" events occurred sometimes as frequently as two years in row, in cycles of about every ten years. We've recently have been through a cycle of about 18 years of warmer than "average" winters. So the return of the occasional "Blue Norther" is seen far and wide by the under forty age groups as a sign of "climate change", which is the new term that displaces "global warming" since the century long over all global temperature average has actually diminished by a fraction of one degree, and after about 18 years of a slow rise appears to be on a downward trend again. Those of us who have been around for more than 100 years know that climates change, that's what they do. Within a certain relatively narrow range climates "change" in cycles of five, ten, twenty, one hundred year cycles but these aren't real "climate change" in that the polar regions remain polar, the temperate zone remains seasonal, the sub tropics and tropics remain within the general temperature ranges of these climates. Every ten thousand years or so we see real global climate change with major changes in the climate boundaries. But the geological record also tells us that sudden drastic climate change can also occur due to massive planetary events that we can't control such as planetary orbital changes, and massive super volcano events. But if the 20 year cycle is returning to previous "normal's" we have to consider some maritime governmental budget items we've been able to neglect the past 18 years.
One of those items for America is the ice breaking capacity of the U.S. Coast Guard for the Great Lakes, Upper East Coast, and northern inland waters.
Recently the E-news organization gcaptain carried the following passage:
"With the so-called Polar Vortex funneling arctic air over a large portion of the U.S., historically low temps have made things very interesting on the inland waterways and coastal areas over the past week. Surface ice, particularly on the Great Lakes, is expanding rapidly and making things difficult, if not impossible in some cases for maritime shippers." If you would like to view gcaptain's photo essay on the recent effects of the "Polar Vortex" on the Great Lakes click on the link below:
The CGC MACKINAW is the only "heavy ice breaker" of the U.S. Coast dedicated to the Great Lakes. It is actually a multi purpose vessel performing aids to navigation and buoy tending missions in the open water seasons as well as law enforcement and search and rescue. The only other ice breaking capabilities that the Coast Guard has on the Great Lakes are few very light capacity bouy tenders and tugs. There is no dedicated heavy ice breaking vessel permanently assigned to the north east coast despite the fact that as recently as the 1970s the Cheasapeake Bay, largely considered "southern waters" froze over.
The U..S. Coast Guard is tasked with the ice breaking chores required to keep federally marked commercial channels open on U.S. navigable waters in winter and for the support of U.S. scientific and military operations in the polar regions in winter. The U.S. Coast Guard has only two polar class ice breakers in actual service , one is way past its anticipated retirement date. The aging CGC POLAR STAR, recently received some press notice for being vectored to assist in the rescue of Russian and Chinese vessels ice bound in Antarctic waters. Thankfully the Russians and Chinese were able to extract themselves before the Polar Star reached the scene. This saved some serious wear and tear on the old ship which was proceeding south to break ice at at the U.S. Antarctic stations. Since 2007 The U.S. had been paying the Russians $8,000,000 a year for ice breaking services while the CGC POLAR STAR was in extended lay up and refit. The Coast Guard has some light ice breaking capacity built into some of its buoy tenders and smaller utility craft on the upper East Coast and northern inland waters but basically the total ice breaking capacity of the service has declined over the last 20 years. The last 20 years have been characterized by relatively mild winters. If this year's "Polar Vortex", billed as the first such event in 20 years signals a return to earlier weather patterns we should expect more icy navigation conditions over wider areas in coming years and really cold events like the one just past, the proverbial "Blue Norther" sometimes two years in a row and happening more like once a decade than every twenty years. We need more ice breaking capacity not less.
Given that the service life of Coast Guard ice breakers has been in excess of 30 years (really too long) it makes no sense to allow capacity to diminish due to a skipped decade in the 10 year winter event cycle. If we allowed a generous 30 year expected life cycle for ice breaking vessels we have to anticipate that a worse case winter will occur at least twice in its service life. The United States needs the capacity in terms of both numbers of vessels, and in heavy, medium, and light ice breaking capacity to keep America's northern ports and waterways open in a hard winter, and provide expanded polar services especially in the American Arctic. There is still a lot of fluff in the American Federal budget, ice breaking capacity isn't among it. Apparently the Congress and White House can't distinguish between vital government services and and fluff. Our diminished ice breaking capacity being but one example. America can't build a $850 million polar ice breaker but in 2012 the U.S. still spent 2.5 billion on the fine arts. The rich, and there are some very very rich folks in the United States are supposed to be the patrons of the arts. The government is supposed to keep the ports and waterways open. What the proponents of Federal arts funding say about $2.5 billion being barely a trace of the federal 3+ trillion budget is true enough. But the cuts have to come from somewhere, Why do they have to come out of vital government functions like defense, border control, and Coast Guard navigational services? Wake up America!
This year (2015) mid January finds the following approximate Great Lakes Ice Cover totals: Lake Superior 20% , Michigan 22%, Huron 50%, Erie 85%, Ontario 25%. Obviously there is a lot more open water this year than last. Between 1973 and 2012 the Great Lakes averaged better than 80% ice coverage at mid winter 16 times and less than 25% on 6 occasions. The spread of these peaks and valleys is pretty even over the monitored period. There seems to be no support that last year was a harbinger of a "climate change" toward an overall colder climate any more than this year's relatively "mild" ( considering Great Lakes ice cover only) signals "global warming". It all appears to be simply the normal cyclical nature of North American weather vice climate. Whatever data we have examined in the last 3 years from a neutral but methodologically astute view point simply appears to support normal weather cycles, not climate change. Why are so many insistent on climate change to the point where Al Gore has suggested that cynics of climate change are dangerously insane and should be silenced ( a lot of respect for the free speech there)? When did science welcome dogma? For the answer we again suggest, FOLLOW THE MONEY