Jan. 31--This January reminded Detroit resident Galina Glyshaw of winters where she grew up -- in Siberia.
Glyshaw moved to Michigan 14 years ago from Novosibirsk, Russia's largest city in its Siberian region, where temperatures average 4 below in the winter.
"In Siberia, I used to walk 40 minutes one-way to work, and I was fine," she said. "Here, I'm outside 15 minutes to clean the car and I'm already cold. ... This winter has really kicked me. I think I need my Siberian winter clothes again."
This was the month that brought "polar vortex," unrequested, into our understanding. An area of high atmospheric pressure in northeastern Canada, and a low pressure area in western North America, steered the jet stream -- the Earth's natural air currents in the upper atmosphere that move along weather -- plunging much more to the south than normal. That created a four-lane highway for air from the North Pole region, typically trapped in the far north of Canada, down over Michigan.
"What we're seeing is very unusual, to say the least," said Jeffrey Andresen, an associate professor of geography at Michigan State University and climatologist for the State of Michigan.
Not only is it rare to have the perfect storm of factors to cause such a powerful polar vortex, the way it has hung around is extraordinary, Andresen said. Jet stream changes typically last days, maybe a week, he said.
"The pattern we have now has persisted, with a couple of breaks in it, all the way back into late November," he said.
And the short-term forecast calls for more cold air and below-normal temperatures into February, said Matt Mosteiko, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake Township. That includes 3-4 inches of snow forecast for Saturday, with 4-5 inches possible farther north, in Genesee and Lapeer counties and the Thumb.
The good news? Temperatures are likely to be in the mid-20s, at least.
"Especially if we have some calm winds and sunshine, it will feel really warm compared to what we've been having," Mosteik said.
But January's conditions shouldn't become a cringe-worthy annual reality, he said.
"This is not the new normal," he said. "This is breaking records that occurred over 120 years of data."
Snow, cold and desperation
Twin polar blasts, two weeks apart, had much of southeast Michigan dumped with its snowiest January on record. Snow forecast for Thursday evening and today was expected to push the Detroit area to its snowiest month of any, ever, exceeding the record of 38.4 inches from February 1908, according to the National Weather Service.
And then there was the cold.
A record-setting first wave of subzero temperatures socked Michigan and much of the eastern U.S. for nearly a week in early January. Then a second wallop of frigid northern air over the last week led to Detroit breaking a record Tuesday with a temperature of 10 below. Nome, Alaska, was 48 degrees warmer.
A few people loved this snowy, bone-chilling, polar vortex-ed January in metro Detroit.
As car batteries failed across the area earlier this week, customers trudged into the Complete Battery Source store in Brighton, Vice President Rob Hohman said. Business is up 30% over last January, he said.
"It's been like Christmas after Christmas," he said. "It has been unlike anything we've seen in 15 years."
Henderson Towing in Detroit is giving jump-starts and haul-aways to disabled cars at a record rate, as well.
"We're four to five times busier" than at this time last year, owner De'Angelo Henderson said.
The weather and demand for roadside assistance have led to further inconvenience for stranded motorists, who often face long waits because so many need help all over the metro region, Henderson said.
"There's a lot of people who will hang up on you -- 'I'm not waiting five hours,' " he said. "Then five minutes later they call back and say, 'Can I still have that five-hour slot?' "
Patching and plowing
The snow has wreaked havoc on the region's road commissions.
The Oakland County Road Commission has used 56,000 tons of salt to deice roads so far this winter, most of the 70,000 tons it buys to last through March, spokesman Craig Bryson said. At this point last year, it had used only 15,000 tons, he said.
Oakland, Wayne and Macomb road commissions all report skyrocketing overtime for plow drivers and other support staff.
"Our crews haven't had a weekend off since before Christmas, and weekends are overtime," Bryson said. "We've worked every holiday, and that's double-time."
The temperatures between the two polar vortices were above-normal, into the 40s, and the weather changed from record snowfall into rain -- "the perfect recipe for making potholes," Bryson said.
"We literally went from plowing snow around the clock to patching potholes on at least a 12-hour-a-day basis, and then back to plowing," he said.
The Wayne County Road Commission has spent more than $7 million so far this season, compared to its five-year average of $8.2 million for entire winters, said Cindy Dingell, deputy chief operating officer for the county Department of Public Services.
"It's a crazy storm season and, of course, we've got more on the horizon," she said.
The road commissions' best efforts to keep roadways clear couldn't prevent a messy month for commuters. The number of accidents on metro Detroit highways is up 49% over this point last winter, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Small silver lining
If the cold and snow weren't jarring enough, try looking at a recent energy bill.
Consumers Energy estimates that its typical home or business customer has used 26% more natural gas to heat their home or business than at this time last winter, spokeswoman Debra Dodd said.
"The silver lining is that Consumers Energy's natural gas prices are the lowest they've been in a decade," she said.
DTE Energy spokesman Alejandro Bodipo-Memba said ratepayers' energy use from November to January is up about 13% compared with the same time a year ago. A typical ratepayer paying $370 over that time this winter is paying about $420, he said.
Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @keithmatheny. Staff writer Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report.
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Original headline: How the polar vortex has left Michigan frozen
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