What Causes Extreme Cold Weather?


Parts of Mars are warmer than Chicago on a blustery day -- if you count Jan 6, 2014 as a blustery day. That’s when the temperature plummeted to -14 degrees. Near the equator on Mars, the temperature can reach 20 Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) in the summer. Many people may know that the sun influences temperature. What they may not know is that the sun is only part of the equation that determines whether extreme cold occurs at a particular location.

What is Extreme Cold?

  • If you’re a penguin at the South Pole, -17.2 Celsius (13 Fahrenheit) may not seem like extreme cold. A native of Ecuador, on the other hand, may panic if the temperature drops to -6.6 Celsius (20 Fahrenheit). Although different people may define “extreme cold,” in various ways, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies defines a cold wave as “a prolonged period of excessively cold weather and the sudden invasion of very cold air over a large area.” Effects can be devastating on property, land and life. To understand extreme cold, we must learn where cold air originates.

Space: Cold's Origin

  • Earth orbits through the void of outer space, where temperatures can reach -100 Celsius (-212 Fahrenheit). The planet doesn’t experience those extremely low temperatures because the atmosphere helps insulate us. However, parts of the planet do get so cold that humans can’t survive without protection. Your location’s latitude helps determine its average temperature. Latitude is critical because more direct sunlight strikes locations at lower latitudes such as Ecuador than it does at higher latitudes near the polar regions.

Water, Wind and Weather

  • Regardless of where you live, your region’s projected temperature fluctuates constantly as meteorologists attempt to predict the next big cold spell. Areas with large differences in altitude, experience greater temperature variations; it gets colder as altitude increases. If you live near a large body of water, the water helps moderate temperatures keeping areas cooler in summer and milder in winter than areas farther away from water. This happens because water cools and heats more slowly than atmosphere. Snow cover can lower temperatures because snow reflects solar energy away from the ground. Even the level of cloud cover in your area can affect temperature. Wind patterns help create weather by moving clouds and water vapor between different regions. Because all the factors can vary, weather in an area can fluctuate from cold to warm and back again.

Why Warm Areas Can Freeze

  • You may live in a warm region near water at higher latitudes and still encounter extremely cold weather under the right conditions. In the frozen regions of the poles lie pockets of cold air called the Polar Vortex that can bring blistering cold to areas outside those regions. The jet stream, a “band” of fast-moving air that flows at high altitudes, helps trap that frigid air in the Arctic. If the jet stream moves south, that same air can be carried along and cause temperatures to plunge to record lows in locations as far south as Texas.

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