Everything You Need to Know About the Polar Vortex of 2014 (According to Hudson Valley Weather)

Hudson Valley chats with self-taught meteorologist Alex Marra of Hudson Valley Weather about the icy chill gripping the Valley

As temperatures plummeted from a balmy 55 degrees to single digits across the Valley on Monday — 20 degrees below zero when you factor in the wind chill — some of you may be wondering what’s to blame for the nation’s record-breaking drop that prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a State of Emergency in 14 New York counties and schools to close their doors across the region. A sudden ice age? The apocalypse? Two words: Polar vortex.

Sure, this phrase has been haunting local weather reports for a few days now, but what does it really mean? We consulted Alex Marra, our region’s own weatherman — and founder of the wildly popular Facebook page, Hudson Valley Weather — for answers.

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HV Mag: You’re a self-taught meteorologist. Is it proper to call you an amateur? Or are you a professional at this point?
Marra: I don’t have any official degrees in meteorology, but I’ve been studying the weather since I was nine years old. I’m 31 now, so we’re talking 20-plus years of teaching myself everything there is to know about the weather. I wouldn’t consider myself an amateur, but I certainly can’t take credit as being a professional meteorologist.

HV Mag: We’ll call you a “meteorologist extraordinaire.”
Marra: Like Gandalf the Grey or something! A weather-wizard!

HV Mag: Let’s get right down to it: Is this polar vortex thing like the apocalypse or what?
Marra: [Laughs] It’s actually not. It’s definitely been hyped up a little bit. At the end of the day, is it dangerous? Zero-degree weather, wind chills 20-below — of course it is! But I think throwing around terms like “polar vortex” tends to get people’s attention more than just simply saying, “It’s gonna get really cold out, you should probably protect yourself.” I’m pretty sure if you check what’s trending on Twitter, “polar vortex” is up there.

HV Mag: You’re right — #polarvortex is the top trending topic right now.
Marra: I’m not surprised!

HV Mag: Scientifically speaking, what exactly is happening with all that cold air?
Marra: It’s a pool of very cold Arctic air that’s usually locked into place by a polar jet stream that circles around it, almost like an invisible fence. Every once in a while, if those winds lessen in intensity or a disturbance causes them to buckle, pieces of the polar vortex break off and travel down into the continental United States.  

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HV Mag: This reminds us of that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, in which eccentric weather patterns instantaneously freeze everything that come into contact with them…
Marra: [Laughs] Some of the things in that movie are factual. But the polar vortex is really 18,000 feet up in the atmosphere, where it can be 100 degrees below zero. In the movie, they try to say that the cold air came pouring down to the surface, which has never happened before.

HV Mag: You have to admit that scene was pretty cool (no pun intended).
Marra: Anyone who loves the weather would be lying if they told you they didn’t enjoy watching that!

HV Mag: In the movie, a lot of the eccentric weather is blamed on global warming. Is our polar vortex related to that?
Marra: When the polar vortex came down in the 1970s, the news media told the entire world that we were entering an ice age [laughs]. The polar vortex comes down in 2014, and it’s global warming. Somebody needs to get their stories straight, ’cause it can’t be both!

HV Mag: So this particular weather pattern — which we’re told is the first time it’s dipped this low in almost 20 years — is normal?
Marra: It doesn’t happen all that often — the last time [we saw this] was in 1996 — and the temps being this cold as far south is kind of rare. But at any given time, there’s a polar vortex above either one of the poles. In the ’80s, it [traveled south] quite often; people around here will tell you those were some of the worst winters they remember. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cold. Central Park’s record that was broken today I believe was from 1896.

HV Mag: We heard that just 15 minutes of exposure to the elements will cause frostbite. Is that true?
Marra: It’s true! The National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart tells you how long it would take for exposed skin to experience frostbite. Right now, in the areas in our region that are under a wind chill advisory, it’s about a half-hour. For the places in our area under a wind chill warning, like the Catskills, it’s about 15 minutes.

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HV Mag: What’s the best way to protect yourself if you must go outside or travel?
Marra: I’ve been at the top of 4,000-foot mountains in the Catskills where it’s 10-below with a wind chill of 30 degrees below zero — it’s all about the gear. There’s a lot of legitimacy behind wearing layers. It’s a combination of a shell to deflect the wind, insulating with fleece, and a base layer that wicks moisture from the skin… Everyone knows you lose the most heat from your head, so wear a good hat. And keep a survival kit in your car. Stuff a backpack [with a] wool blanket, a flashlight, gloves… You know, one person could get into an accident on I-84, and the other 2,000 people behind have to spend the night [on the highway]. You start running out of gas, and all of a sudden, it’s not such a bad idea [to have a survival kit] anymore!

HV Mag: What’s your forecast for the next few days?
Marra: The good thing is that today was the worst day. You’ll feel a difference tomorrow. It’ll still be cold, but when it’s been six degrees, 20 feels like a heat wave! The real noticeable difference comes from about Thursday on. By this weekend, we could be all the way up into the 40s.

HV Mag: That’s beach weather!
Marra: Exactly! Next week looks mild. How long the warm-up lasts is to be determined, because there are some signs that, by the end of January, we might swing back into cold weather again. For now, it looks like we’ll get at least a week of a break from the cold. Maybe some light snow on Friday, but besides that, it should be much warmer. People should get a chance to thaw out a little bit.

HV Mag: How will you be riding out the polar vortex? Sipping hot cocoa with a good read by the fire? Or monitoring your computer models and glued to Facebook?
Marra: Obviously, the worst the weather, the less time I usually have to enjoy it, since I’m trying to keep an eye on things. I like to be all in it, though. I’m probably the worst person to ask for cold-weather advice — if I had my way right now, I’d be on top of a mountain where it’s even colder!

HV Mag: We’ve always wanted to know: what’s your favorite kind of extreme weather?
Marra: It’s tough, because I certainly love extreme weather. I don’t love when people are impacted by it as much. It’s a delicate balance.

HV Mag: No one seems to trust meteorologists anymore.
Marra: I think what it boils down to is that weather and business don’t always mix. If you’re talking about the Weather Channel or a local news station, their main concern is always about the ratings — they don’t want to be wrong. But people want to be prepared. Well-informed people make smarter decisions. I don’t think anyone has the right to hold back information for the sake of their own personal gain. 

HV Mag: You established the Hudson Valley Weather Facebook page three years ago because you noticed the Hudson Valley wasn’t getting enough attention. Now, the page has more than 58,000 fans.
Marra: Today is the three-year anniversary of Hudson Valley Weather, actually! I would’ve never thought it’d become so big. It’s very humbling, because I’ve wanted to be a weatherman since I was a kid. If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you — I used to watch the Weather Channel when I was seven. Ultimately, Hudson Valley Weather is the kid living out that adult dream because 58,000 people pretty much consider me a weatherman. Even though I didn’t go through the motions, it’s rewarding enough for me.

About Hudson Valley Weather:
Founded by amateur meteorologist Alex Marra of Kingston, Hudson Valley Weather rose to fame in 2011 as one of the only Facebook pages to hone in on the mid-Hudson Valley’s specific weather patterns. With more than 58,000 “likes” to date, HVWX1’s forecasts are known for their accuracy and attention to detail, successfully predicting Tropical Storm Irene’s destructiveness as well as the Halloween snowstorm that same year — weeks before they occurred.
Aiming to educate and serve as a venue to gather weather enthusiasts, Hudson Valley Weather is a trusted resource for locals looking to get their forecast fix. For daily updates, a live map, a blog, and more, visit the Web site at hudsonvalleyweather.com

Winter Warriors

Love the snow and cold temps as much as Alex Marra does? Here are some winter activities we think you’d enjoy:

» 5 Best Places to Go Snow-tubing with the Kids
» 6 Best Winter Sports in the Hudson Valley
» 10 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues (check for updated events and program availability)
» Winter Survival Guide (check for updated events and program availability)
 Snowshoeing Sites and Rentals


alex marra hudson valley weatherDon’t mess with the weatherman: Alex Marra of Hudson Valley Weather dishes straightforward — and spot-on — weather predictions
Photograph by Michael Bloom Photography

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