Bad weather for Northeast Ohio expected this weekend will stick around for a while thanks to polar vortex

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — While most of us were drinking champagne and making resolutions to ring in the New Year, swirling winds hovering miles about the Arctic — known as the polar vortex — broke into three smaller vortices.

One of those, which has made its way to the eastern half of the United States, is expected to bring Cleveland its first harsh winter weather of the season.

“We had a little taste of winter weather this morning with the ice and slipperiness,” said Mike Griffin, lead forecaster and meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Cleveland. “[Thursday] is round two of a teaser, or an appetizer. We may get one to two inches of snow, but that’s not the main system we’ve been watching.”

The bigger storm, dubbed Winter Storm Harper, is expected to hit Ohio late Friday or early Saturday.

“The first system – really not a huge deal. A couple of inches across most of central and northern Ohio,” said Jonathan Belles, meteorologist for weather.com, part of IBM. “The second system will bring in quite a bit more snowfall. A good stripe across most of central and northern Ohio of at least five inches. A couple spots in the eastern part of the state may see a foot of snowfall with that second system.”

Both ground and air travel is expected to be “very hazardous, if not impossible,” Griffin said. “Anyone who has errands, do them on Friday.”

The system will move east out of Ohio on Sunday, and the snow should let up by next week, Belles said.

But this is just the beginning.

“It looks like the pattern is going to be pretty well stuck, probably at least into early February and probably into the middle of February,” Belles said.

That’s thanks to the polar vortex, according to Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental Research.

We tend to only hear about the polar vortex when it weakens and moves or splits. The rest of the time, the strong ribbon of air is stable enough to bottle up all the cold air over the Arctic region.

“When you have a weakening or disrupted polar vortex, it can be displaced where it kind of gets shoved off the pole but it maintains its integrity,” Cohen said. “But this year and last year, it is more dramatic disruptions: splitting into two daughter vortices.”

There was enough warming over the Arctic early this month that the polar vortex split, sending one “daughter vortex” to North America and another to Europe and Asia, which then itself split, Cohen said.

“Typically when you have a polar vortex disruption, and especially when you have the magnitude that we had this year, you can expect this impact to last, at minimum, four weeks, maybe as much as eight weeks,” Cohen said.

Cohen predicts that the harsh cold and snow will be episodic, punctuated by periods of mild weather.

“There are times when it’s like one and done, when you get one shot of winter but it’s relatively brief and there’s no longer any impacts. While that’s possibility, I don’t expect that with this event just because of the magnitude that it was,” Cohen said.

Some snow plow drivers will be working 12-hour shifts to keep up with the storm.

The Ohio Department of Transportation scheduled a more detailed planning meeting for Thursday, but says it has plans in place to tackle the approaching winter weather.

“Crews are already set up to come in,” ODOT spokeswoman Amanda McFarland said. “It will begin Friday evening with 12-hour shifts and they’ll work throughout the weekend until whenever the snow stops. We’ll be fully staffed in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties, with about 80 snow plows operating.”

But what does that mean for drivers?

“Definitely check the forecast and our website to see live views of current conditions and traffic speeds,” McFarland said. “If you do have to go out allow yourself plenty of extra travel time, that way you’re not rushed to get anywhere.”

With 80 ODOT snow plows working in three Northeast Ohio counties alone, it’s important to take proper precautions when driving near them. McFarland urged drivers to give the road crews plenty of room to work, for both their safety and others driving on the roads.

“They’re going to be plowing a lot of snow this weekend according to what the forecast is calling for right now,” McFarland said. “Stay back so you don’t end up in a snow cloud while they’re pushing snow, which will completely reduce your visibility to nothing.”

In addition to ODOT, companies from all over Northeast Ohio are bracing themselves.

“This has been an interesting storm for us because there hasn’t been a ton of snow so far, it’s been a pretty light season,” said Dan Lopez, director of business development at Plowz and Mowz. “As soon as there’s a call for snow we start getting questions from customers. We’ve gotten pretty busy over the last three or four days.”

Working exclusively with private home, Lopez stresses the issue of driveway clearing even if the snow’s impact doesn’t appear to be enough to warrant it.

“Make sure you get your driveway taken care of,” Lopez said. “Three inches of wet, heavy snow can really cause issues with slipping and falling. As much as I know it’s a pain and it’s cold, if you can’t get shoveling services people need to at least stay on top of it to ensure the driveway is useable and not packed down with ice.”

Residential snow safety doesn’t end with those who happen to be home. Lack of upkeep on driveways could also lead to potential crimes, according to Lopez.

“We have a lot of snowbirds that use our service,” Lopez said. “If someone is in Florida and we get six inches in Cleveland, they don’t want people to think they’re not home. They will place an order to get their driveway taken care of so that someone driving by won’t know they’re not there.”

Local hardware stores are also gearing up for the imminent winter weather.

“The big thing this morning was anything that would melt the ice,” Todd Votaw of Sutton Hardware said. “It really hasn’t been cold enough to generate a lot of heater sales, but today was about anything that could melt or scrape ice.”

Votaw has also historically seen customers purchasing items to insulate pipes from freezing and outdoor workwear.

“I would always have some sort of additional clothing or a blanket in the car if you get stuck,” Votaw said. “Always make sure you have plenty of windshield washer fluid because keeping good sight lines is very important if this weather comes.”

The City of Cleveland issued tips to residents to help keep them safe. For those planning to drive, and subsequently park in the city, make note of any snow parking bans if accumulation exceeds two inches. Drivers will need to reference posted red and white signs. Failure to adhere could result in ticketing and towing.

Many tips reference the low temperatures as well. Residents should dress appropriately, bring their pets indoors, check in on the vulnerable and ensure emergency supply kits are well-stocked.

Cleveland residents looking to stay informed can sign up for CodeRED, the city’s mass communication system.

2019-01-16 22:18:00

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