This particular blast of bone-chill sweeping the country as January gets underway is being produced by an arctic vortex, a low-pressure system situated roughly over the North Pole. It's usually up there in winter, making things pleasantly icy for polar bears, and every once in a while -- when there's no strong high pressure system in the U-S or Canada to block it -- the vortex sends a frozen arm south in our direction.
I know all this because for six years I was on WHP-TV 21 in Harrisburg, PA, delivering weather forecasts to a rather meager audience. In the late 90s, Channel 21 was firmly in the "little to none" category when it came to ratings; our 6 PM news was regularly beaten by Simpsons re-runs. I think I've met most every viewer we had, and to this day they ask me for weather advice whenever I see them -- starting with my wife, who asks me what the high temperature for the day will be every morning. I've made it a habit to check the forecast before she wakes up.
It helps that I had excellent weather training from one of the best in the business. It all started in the late 1980s. I found myself in the newsroom of Harrisburg's NPR affiliate, WITF, providing local news during breaks in the middle of radio's Morning Edition. The TV side decided to provide a wrap-up of the day's news at 10 each night and hijacked me to be a reporter. A few months in, one of the news anchors left, so WITF moved the weather anchor over to the news desk, and promoted me to weather. That's when the fun began.
The station had cut a deal with Penn State's meteorological department to provide weather maps and information, so every night I got to chat on the phone with Fred Gadomski. Up at Penn State, Fred Gadomski IS weather. Besides teaching there, he's on the American Meteorological Society's Board of Broadcasting, he's in the Meteorologists Hall of Fame, and has explained weather to the masses on Good Morning America and Today. Fred patiently walked me through all the weather maps and explained fun stuff like radiational cooling, the Coriolis effect and anabatic winds. Fred helped me cram years of learning into weeks and had simple, easy-to-understand explanations for all the wacky stuff that goes on when it rains and snows and fogs up. When I moved a few years later to WHP I added to the base of knowledge Fred gave me, enough to draw my own maps and cook up my own forecasts which were correct more often than not. So thanks again, Fred, and here's hoping there's a warm front in your immediate future.