Extremely cold air has run rampant through the Great Lakes and Northeast, and it even dropped to the middle 30s last night in central Florida. At Charlotte, N.C., the temperature broke a record that had survived since 19 years after the end of the Civil War. In 1884, the city had fewer than 10,000 people.
At Philadelphia, they froze through the first record-breaking January cold snap in this century; Chicago had a similar experience yesterday. There has been talk about all this was caused by the polar vortex. The polar vortex, however, is about as uncommon as sunrise. As it changes shape, strength and and orientation, it can bring extreme cold like we have now or trigger unseasonable mildness, as parts of the East will experience this weekend. This video shows why.
Minor changes in wind direction can be all it takes to give Buffalo's southern suburbs a blizzard that spares the city, then cause a reversal hours later (if the flow becomes more west-southwesterly. With that direction, air passes over Lake Erie for 300 miles before coming into downtown Buffalo.) It is a close call on that for this afternoon. This pressure map shows ripples in the flow that can temporarily cause important changes in snow band orientation.
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This storm is a little colder than the other two, so snow has dominated all the way to the coast