It’s a good thing my kids and I really enjoy each other’s company because from time to time in Kenosha, Wisconsin (an hour north of Chicago), we get pummeled with enough snow that we hunker down with our little dog at home and wait until we can shovel out our driveways and the roads are clear enough to be “safe.” But because Wisconsinites are tough, those days aren’t too often. Our school districts are loathe to cancel school if they can possibly justify being open, and employers are no different. We learn from an early age the kind of mettle to dig our vehicles out from under mountains of snow in the morning, and set out on streets where our tires might not even make contact with the actual road. I’ve said that you’re more likely to arrive safely in these conditions if you understand that it’s more like traveling in a one-ton sled whose brakes just might stop you in time if you are skillful enough. So a rough winter is no big deal to most of us — we just go on with life as usual.
I offer proof — this is me in 2010 getting around town in spite of snow that was about four feet high here. We don't scare easy!
But this winter was different. My neighbors and friends and I couldn’t stop remarking on how strange the weather was. Leaving the house without a coat in mid-December? Dry, snow-less yards outside our picture windows for the holidays? “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” had turned into “It’s beginning to look a lot like climate change.” It’s easy to see how man-made climate change from fossil fuels is impacting our norms all over the world and in our own neighborhoods. Life without the snow removal was a lot easier, sure, but it was eery and wrong. We should have known there would be a price.
When The Polar Vortex Hit The Midwest
In the last few weeks, our sunny 50 degree days were replaced by frigid temperatures that reminded us that we’ve been trained to bring gloves for a reason. We finally got buried in snow — again and again — which we can take. But we didn’t see the headlines coming:
Chicago Will Be Colder Than Mount Everest, Siberia, and Antarctica on Wednesday (CBS)
Extreme Cold From Polar Vortex Kills 3 In Wisconsin, Michigan (U.S. News)
Governor Evers Declares State of Emergency In Response To Winter Storm, Cold (Fox 6)
You can see here how the temperatures went from what’s considered a normal range of cold in this area for January down to dangerous lows.
And something that is especially important to note when comparing these temperatures to historical lows: the U.S. National Weather Service reminded us yesterday that before the weather scale was changed in 2001, the lows we saw on January 30th would have been equivalent to -80°.
What Extraordinarily Low Temperatures Mean For People’s Lives
For my kids and I, we were lucky. We had the means to stay inside until the temperature normalizes and to stock up on what we needed to ride it out.
But what about others?
The power went out for much of my city on Wednesday morning, just when people needed their furnaces the most.
Just among my local friends’ misfortunes from the last two days, I know: a woman who totaled her car because of black ice; a man who had the power steering freeze and blow out a high pressure line in his car after 10 minutes; a man whose pipes froze and burst frigid water all over his apartment; and a friend whose trim is ripping apart from their walls because of how the house is “swelling.” My neighbor’s battery in their vehicle is dead as a doornail, and one woman’s brand new, well insulated window is forming ice on the inside, while ice is encroaching through her doorjam and her deadbolt.
Photos courtesy of Dawn Xiana Moon.
It gets worse. Of course, there are people unlucky enough to live outside. Hospitals, churches, and county agencies are turning into temporary warming shelters in an attempt to get everyone in from the cold, but not everyone finds their way to them. At temperatures this low, frostbite can set in with just five minutes of exposure.
TIME Magazine depicts how scared one homeless man was even before the temperatures plummeted to their lowest this week:
“Gordon typically sleeps in a park. To stay warm, he stuffs hand warmers inside his bedding and covers himself with industrial garbage bags. But when temperatures hit -4° last Friday, that wasn’t enough. ‘I thought I was going to die,’ he says.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. At least 8 deaths have been linked to the polar vortex, with a good chance that more may be discovered. Time and again, we see that climate change disproportionately impacts those oppressed by income inequality. They simply don’t have the means to survive it the way more fortunate people do.
What Does The Polar Vortex Mean For Our Future?
As climate change continues to unfold, occurrences like this may become more and more “normal.” The Guardian cites emerging evidence that the polar vortex is pushing south more frequently because of climate change. If it’s true, then that means that everything changes.
How our homes are built and insulated, and how pipes, plumbing, and electricity infrastructure are designed has to change. How we manage our school and work logistically has to change. If work can be done from home, employers and schools will need to make those allowances. Vehicles need to be less integral to daily life. Emergency services will need to be expanded. Facilities and solutions for our homeless populations will become even more urgent. On and on — our way of life has to be reexamined and engineered to withstand the changes that are coming with our climate.
And this is crucial; if we are to keep these extremes from getting unimaginably worse, we have to get off of fossil fuels immediately.
The Midwest isn’t alone in this reevaluation of our world from the ground up. The East Coast’s super hurricanes, the West Coast’s drought and wildfires, Arizona’s increasingly fiery temperatures melting their mailboxes (to say nothing of last week’s tire-meltingly hot streak in Australia) — these all converge as writing on the wall: as the saying goes, adapt or die.
We Need A Green New Deal To Combat Climate Change
Climate change is at our door. Many of us recognize that now. But it’s not time to despair. It’s time to work even harder to get off of fossil fuels quickly, and to demand a Green New Deal that takes climate change seriously as the issue of our time. We need to rethink our way of life in every manner, and have the courage to make big changes to save ourselves.
When you see me and my neighbors struggling in Wisconsin with the polar vortex, I need you to fight like you live here. Just like I do when I see the extreme weather events across the country. Our fates are intertwined, and this is the only planet we get. Will you sign on to demand a version of the Green New Deal that gets us off of fossil fuels?
Social media thumbnail image of Kenosha's Harbor courtesy of Scott Page.