North Texas Daily

Icepocalypse 2014: will it be the next big chill?

Icepocalypse 2014: will it be the next big chill?

Icepocalypse 2014: will it be the next big chill?
November 25
00:19 2014

Samantha McDonald / Senior Staff Writer

Instead of leaving for class on an early December weekday last year, journalism senior Porschia Paxton was at her apartment at The Grove, browsing the Internet with the television blaring in front of her.

No, she wasn’t wasting precious study time. Her smartphone’s screen was set on UNT Eagle Alert’s Twitter handle and the program on broadcast featured the local news.

Both online and offline, people were beginning to refer to the incoming winter storm as the “Icepocalypse,” a sudden cold snap that paralyzed most of the North Texas at a time when students were ready to put an end to their fall semesters.

“It was really unexpected,” Paxton said. “No one thought it was going turn out the way it did.”

The storm only got worse. Within that week, Paxton lost a high school classmate, Kayla Gawalek, who died after her car spun out of control on the Lewisville Lake Bridge and plunged into the icy water.

“I’m from Chicago, and I’ve never seen weather do that before,” she said. “It was a shock.”

Winters past

When the winter storm arrived in the southeast in the first week of December 2013, North Texas was left battered and bruised. Blankets of ice covering large sections of both Interstate 35E and 35W made for treacherous driving. Travelers found themselves stranded as thousands of flights were canceled. Residents gathered by their fireplaces to keep warm after power shut down in many cities.

Students, on the other hand, were left to navigate the constant stream of messages, Tweets and alerts that would determine whether they were expected in class for their end-of-semester exams.

“As it got further into finals week, I think it got inconvenient for everybody,” said Laura Siebeneck, a professor of hazard mitigation and preparedness. “The biggest challenge was keeping up with email and assuring that we [faculty] will work with students to get those schedules.”


Snow piles on the hoods and windshields of parked cars in the parking lots on campus during the snow drizzle on Nov. 16. Photo by Evan McAlister – Staff Photographer

Siebeneck, who heeded meteorologist warnings and camped at home, used her emergency management skills to get through the worst of the weather while staying in contact with her students from two classes and completing research required for faculty workload. By keeping safe – with a cup of hot cocoa, no less – Siebeneck was able to brave the storm without having to set foot outdoors.

“I think I got cabin fever, but I was prepared, so it wasn’t that bad for me,” she said.

Although he wasn’t heavily affected by it, climatologist and earth science professor Kent McGregor compared last year’s winter storm to the Great Blizzard of 1978. This historic  storm shut down most schools, businesses and transportation services for days near the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes due to wind strengths that could be likened to a hurricane.

At the time, McGregor was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, which was also hit by heavy rain and snow. Now, as a Denton resident, he is anxious to see if North Texas will suffer the same weather conditions as the officially coined Blizzard of 2013.

“I’m watching and waiting, in a sense, but certainly that ice storm last December was the worst I’ve ever seen, and I grew up in the Midwest,” McGregor said. “I’ve seen ice.”

Despite the intensity of the winter weather, McGregor advises individuals to avoid using the misrepresented term “polar vortex,” which burst on the scene alongside popular culture’s theories about the Icepocalypse. Instead, McGregor traces the 2013 storm to jet stream amplification at the poles that can bring about low-pressure areas.

“It’s at best a bad use of science. At worst, it’s media hype,” he said. “You would think every unusual cold snap was due to a polar vortex, and believe me, we’ve had unusual cold snaps as long as I’ve been around, but it wasn’t until last year that people were talking about them in the context of a polar vortex.”

Winters present

While he was in Illinois during the 1978 blizzard, the El Niño Southern Oscillation was taking place across the U.S., McGregor said. Instead of sending out the unusually warm weather by which it is characterized, the season shockingly became the worst winter in a hundred years.

“That pattern that winter, curiously enough, is fairly similar to what we saw from parts of last winter [and] what we see this latest cold outbreak,” McGregor said. “It’s just one of those mad things that drives climate forecasters nuts.”

He also pointed out that human carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, which eventually leads to ecological changes, such as the extinction of species.

“Conceivably there’s a connection between more extreme forms of weather and what’s going on with the global atmosphere, and I believe humans are playing part in that,” McGregor said.

Before making any predictions about the upcoming winter weather, McGregor said he’s giving El Niño about six weeks to make an appearance in the region. However, he acknowledges that this prospect is unlikely.

“I’m not a psychic, but if the beginning of this winter and this last cold snap is any indication, just the sheer fact that it was severe as it was and it occurred so early in the season would cause me some concern for what we might see this winter,” he  said.

Emergency Management Coordinator Brad Scott said if a similar situation happens this winter, he is confident that emergency management services will help coordinate and facilitate discussions with all necessary departments to ensure a proper plan of action is pursued.

“We live in North Texas; we’re prone to all types of severe weather from spring tornadoes and drought in the summer time to wildfires and winter weather,” he said. “We will hand-in-hand go through the process to figure things out with departments across campus.”

Part of emergency management is a set of recommendations that address how to prepare and respond to disaster situations on university grounds. UNT has plans available online, including an emergency preparedness guide, emergency management plan and a severe weather plan.

“I think a lot of people think of it like a checklist, but it’s more of a framework that we operate within,” Scott said. “Above all, it’s the life and safety of our campus community that’s paramount. Everything else comes second after that.”

Gearing up

The 2013 winter storm was undoubtedly inopportune, but not for obvious reasons.

Scott said that if it had occurred some time before or after finals week, the impact would not have been the same. Instead, the weather had created certain conditions that required the emergency management department to effectively employ its weather crises framework.

“There are some things you can’t control, and one of those things is the weather,” Scott said. “Regardless of your best intentions or best efforts, you have to be flexible and willing to deal with the situation as it is and do the best you can to get your operations up and running.”

In her hazard mitigation and preparedness class, Siebeneck’s students have told her stories about their reasons for majoring in emergency management, which include everything from small-town disasters to Hurricane Katrina.

“[These were] experiences that made them come here,” she said. “I’m very fortunate I never had those experiences, but it’s been very interesting to learn from significant events that people have experienced.”

Stocking up on communication supplies and periodically listening to emergency broadcasts, Siebeneck said, is one of the most useful ways to learn more about the severity of winter disasters and avoid becoming a statistic in these crisis situations.

“I think the first thing is keeping that communication open,” she said. “Being vigilant and gathering information is extremely important.”

Ultimately, Siebeneck said that the first defense against cold weather must be in the interest of keeping warm. Individuals tend to forget the importance of layering clothes through wool coats, thick socks and covered gloves, which can help prevent illnesses brought about by freezing temperatures, she said.

“It sounds very simple, but it’s kind of the simplest things that make us more comfortable during these times,” she said.

Featured Image: Tree branches freeze and roads become skating rinks for those brave enough to drive their cars during “Icepocalypse” last year. Photo by Edward Balusek – Visuals Editor

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