A winter storm brought extreme weather conditions to much of the Midwest and eastern United States over the past week, leading to more than 50 deaths across 12 states. The brutal cold front hit huge swathes of the country with freezing temperatures and bitter gusts of wind, causing a wind-chill effect that reached below -40°F in some areas. Snow, freezing rain, and blizzard conditions battered communities while travelers were stranded in their vehicles and hundreds of thousands of homes experienced power outages over the holiday weekend.
Disruptions or splits in the Arctic polar vortex can cause severe storms to impact warmer latitudes during winter months in the northern hemisphere, and evidence suggests climate change is exacerbating this effect to a worrying extent. The Arctic polar vortex is a circle of westerly winds that forms in the atmosphere above the North Pole each winter. This ring of powerful wind encircles and contains an expanse of very cold air. When waves of air from across the Earth’s surface flow up into the stratosphere and break against the vortex, each wave introduces a force upon the polar vortex. These waves can cause the vortex to split, reposition, or in extreme cases, reverse direction. The vortex is sometimes strong and stable and does not influence weather in the lower latitudes.
Between 1989 and 1998 there were no instances of what scientists call “split vortex events” in midwinter. However, over the past two decades polar vortex instability has been increasing at an alarming rate. Very likely due to human-induced climate change, an unstable polar vortex will more and more frequently bring deadly weather occurrences to our communities.
Geographical factors often play an outsized role in the variation of impact sustained from region to region. One of the results of a cold front like the one many of us recently experienced is that as the Arctic air moves across the warmer Great Lakes, clouds are created bearing massive precipitation in the form of lake effect snow. Buffalo and surrounding Erie County, New York, one of the communities most devastatingly affected by the storm, lost nine people who did not have heat in their homes. Four people died in their vehicles, 17 people were found deceased outside, and three people died after delayed responses from emergency medical services. In total, the Erie County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed 37 deaths caused by the storm.
Amazingly, a group of friends in Buffalo used snowmobiles to patrol through snowy streets in the midst of the tremendous blizzard to save 50 people stranded outside or in their cars. A tragic reality is that lives will continue to be lost under capitalism when large numbers of people are not being provided with adequate shelter and heating utilities, and the government is unwilling and incapable of mobilizing sufficient rescue and relief efforts.
Many working-class communities in the United States are not resilient to the extreme cold and heavy winds experienced during this storm. Aging and poorly built housing is not weatherized, disproportionately burdening low-income households with high energy bills. Some households have no heating system, or have a dysfunctional system that is neglected by their landlord. Power outages occur because infrastructure is oftentimes improperly weatherized, unable to withstand strong winds and fallen trees, or simply cannot keep up with the energy demand during extreme temperatures.
People without electricity, proper insulation or heating systems in their homes were certainly among the most vulnerable, but in the days leading up to the storm, the forecast was most dire for people who do not have homes. In the areas affected by the storm, there are hundreds of thousands of people who live on the streets, and this number has risen significantly in the last few years due to astronomical rent hikes and evictions.
The weather was extremely dangerous for anyone who was outside without warm enough clothing. Hypothermia occurs after prolonged exposure to temperatures under 50°F, and can occur even sooner with a wind-chill effect present. Frostbite can occur within 30 minutes of skin being exposed to 0°F combined with wind speeds as low as 5 mph. As many existing and emergency shelters were operating beyond capacity, some advocacy organizations raised funds to provide people with hotel rooms to stay in during the storm. It is shameful that in the wealthiest country in the world, people have to be pushed into overcrowded shelters, or otherwise rely on charity to save them during these extreme weather events. It is even more shameful that anyone is living outside when there are more than enough resources to house every single person in this country.
Mainstream media has provided thorough coverage of this storm’s devastating impacts, but does not raise the question of how the deaths could have been prevented. These catastrophic weather events are triggered by climate change, a crisis driven by capitalism, and their direct impacts are compounded by other crises rooted in capitalism. The housing crisis, poverty wages and unemployment forces people to live in the streets or in housing with poor insulation or broken heating systems. Our transportation infrastructure is in disrepair, and many workers are forced to drive in dangerous conditions to get to their jobs. People who provide critical services or are otherwise forced to work during these weather events are often not adequately compensated or protected. Our energy system drives power outages and price hikes. These are all problems that capitalism has no answer to. Under a capitalist system that is fundamentally driven by the profit motive, the ruling elite see no benefit in maintaining infrastructure or developing relief networks in order to mitigate the potential impacts of climate disasters.
There has been a concerted effort over the past several decades by capitalist media to conflate climate change with an outdated and misinformed concept of “global warming.” While it’s true that average global temperatures are rising, this information alone does not provide a clear picture of the effects of human-induced climate change. As global average temperatures rise, air and water currents are destabilized, triggering increasingly unpredictable weather patterns causing droughts, fires, floods, and extreme temperatures to become more frequent and more intense. A clear picture of the effects of climate change is one that includes exponential increases in the number and frequency of catastrophic weather events each year which means, under the inhumane capitalist system, loss of life and collapse of infrastructure is sure to follow. Under a socialist society, not only could we immediately address the causes of climate change, but we could also build resilient infrastructure and mobilize and support communities to prepare for and recover from what is already unfolding.