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A meteorologist explains the record-breaking cold snap in the Northeast

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the past 24 hours, a dangerously cold storm has pushed temperatures well below zero across New England. Weather Service officials warned that these dangerously cold temperatures can cause frostbite on any exposed skin in as little as 10 minutes. And here's what that storm sounded like outside the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND RUSHING)

MARTIN: That wind you're hearing ripped across the summit of Mount Washington, which is the highest peak in the northeastern U.S., at 120 miles per hour. Wind chill temperatures were measured at below -100 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA. That's about the same temperature as the surface of Mars. And inside the observatory overnight and still there now is meteorologist Francis Tarasiewicz. He is a weather observer and education specialist with the Mount Washington Observatory. He's here to explain why this storm is so severe and what is causing this strange phenomena. Francis Tarasiewicz, thank you so much for joining us.

FRANCIS TARASIEWICZ: Hi. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So what are the conditions like outside, and what was it like over the past 24 hours?

TARASIEWICZ: Sure. So outside right now, we've finally broken out of the clouds. We were in a lot of fog. And interestingly enough, we've been watching these little snow whirls, little snow tornadoes, if you will, coming up the side of the summit with strong winds. We're still in the 70 or so mile per hour range with gusts around 90 miles per hour. And we're the warmest we've been in over two days, almost, at 24 degrees below zero.

MARTIN: So I would assume that Mount Washington in particular is no stranger to extreme conditions. But how does this compare with other cold snaps?

TARASIEWICZ: So actually, this particular cold snap up here on the summit tied the record. Lowest temperature that we've recorded as an organization at this particular station - 47 degrees below zero. We hit that number right around 4:00 a.m. this morning.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. So what's causing these incredibly cold temperatures in New England and where you are at Mount Washington?

TARASIEWICZ: So there has been a lobe of the polar vortex, which usually sits right on the northern - right on the North Pole, I should say. That's come down from northern Canada and paid us a visit here up here in New England and, in particular, in the northern part of New England. That's really what allowed for a really quick-hitting but intense period of cold.

MARTIN: Do you think that we are going to see more of these kinds of storms in the future?

TARASIEWICZ: Difficult to say exactly, but there are some studies that suggest a wavier jet stream that is able to dislodge these areas of polar air southward into the mid-latitudes maybe contributing to future events like this, particularly as the planet warms and that temperature gradient from north to south lessens. That will allow for the jet stream to perhaps become a bit more wavy and, again, bring some of these chunks of really cold arctic air southward.

MARTIN: On the one hand, it's fascinating, right? On the other hand, it's kind of frightening because it can be dangerous, these cold temperatures. I mean, human beings really aren't built for this. Am I right?

TARASIEWICZ: That's absolutely right. So even right now, you know, the warmest we've been in 24 hours, if I were to, say, leave my glove off for more than a couple of minutes, I may start to feel the beginnings of frostbite. And yesterday, frostbite could have set in as little as 30 seconds or so, just, you know, 100-degree-below wind chill. And so definitely a quite dangerous storm up here and in the New England area overall.

MARTIN: So I think the message here is don't be out there. I think that's kind of - I think the bottom line is don't be out there. But I - which is, I assume, one of the reasons school was closed is that people don't want children, you know, standing at bus stops and things of that sort.

TARASIEWICZ: Definitely. I think that was the right call for many areas, many areas around the Northeast breaking record-low temperatures. During the month of February, that's a fairly impressive feat in New England.

MARTIN: That was Francis Tarasiewicz. He's a weather observer and education specialist with the Mount Washington Observatory. Francis Tarasiewicz, thanks so much for talking to us.

TARASIEWICZ: Thanks for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.