Southwest Polar Vortex: Dry & Mild Bring Wildfire Concerns

Alysa Landry
1/20/14

The coldest temperatures in 20 years hit most of the United States earlier this month, affecting nearly 140 million Americans and leaving few areas unscathed.

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The northern parts of the country, including tribes in Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota were hit especially hard, though sub-zero temperatures across the nation led to closed schools, canceled flights and weather-related deaths.

Known as a polar vortex, the weather system originated near the North Pole and swept arctic air southward during the beginning of January, plunging most of the country into a deep freeze. Even states in the Deep South were hit by the cold blast; Alabama and Georgia experienced temperatures in the single digits.

The National Weather Service reported temperatures 30 to 50 degrees lower than average in some cities, with the coldest temperatures hitting between January 5 and 7.

The arctic blast hit the Southwest, including the tribes and pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico, but the temperatures did not dip as drastically as they did elsewhere in the country, said Tim Shy, a senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque.

“The freezing arctic wind came down from Canada and really hit Indian country hard in Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Michigan and into New York,” he said. “It went all the way down to Mississippi and Alabama. The Southwest didn’t get quite the same plunge. Temperatures dipped down, but it wasn’t nearly as cold.”

Much of the Navajo Nation was covered in snow during the last week of December, Shy said. Temperatures were in the single-digits in the Navajo community of Crownpoint during the late-December snowstorm, or about 10 degrees lower than average.

The temperature in Crownpoint plunged to zero on January 6, or about 15 degrees below average. Very little, if any, snow fell, Shy said.

Temperatures were similarly cold in Arizona, said Mark Stubblefield, a meteorologist in the Flagstaff, Arizona, office of the National Weather Service. In Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, temperatures dipped to zero on January 5, followed by 3 degrees on January 6.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located in northeast Arizona, hit a low of 9 degrees both days, Stubblefield said. Temperatures also dipped to 9 or 10 degrees in the Hopi village of Kykotsmovi, Arizona, home of the tribal government.

“It’s below average for this time of year, but we are not setting any records,” Stubblefield said.

Temperatures in the Southwest may be milder than in other areas of the country, but communities still are preparing for the worst, said Paula Begay, community service coordinator for the Navajo community of Tsaile/Wheatfields.

“It’s been really cold, but not bad enough that we had to shut things down,” she said. “The chapter is prepared to do deliveries if we need to.”

Gayla James, community service coordinator for the Navajo community of Lukachukai, Arizona, said residents are used to being exposed to the elements. On the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation, people traditionally have lived close to the land and endured all kinds of weather.

“There’s no weather emergency here,” she said. “I guess we’re just used to it.”

In places like the Navajo Nation or nearby pueblos where roads are not paved, a lack of moisture now can mean an easier spring, Shy said. Heavy snowfall often leads to muddy, impassable roads that can cause emergency situations for residents of isolated areas.

“The snowfall is not significant,” he said. “So far we don’t have the melting, the mud getting stuck to shoes or clogging up tires.”

Dry winters often lead to dry summers, however, Shy said.

“If I were sitting in Indian country where things are quite dry, I’d be more worried about wildfire issues coming up,” he said.

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