Aitkin County sees mild fallout from two-week polar vortex

While Aitkin County began to thaw from its trip through the polar vortex this past weekend, the impact on the area seemed to be relatively small.

Minnesotans are used to extreme winters – and may have been surprised to know that a polar vortex had been here at all over the last few weeks.

When asked about the impact the polar vortex has had on the Aitkin community, Sheriff Dan Guida was surprised.

“I’ve lived in northern Minnesota my whole life and this is probably the mildest winter we’ve ever had,” said Guida. He recalled one winter where he was ice fishing and from the time he drilled his hole to the time he got his rod out of the bucket, the hole had already begun to freeze over.

“It happened so fast that you could hardly fish,” Guida added.

Just two years ago, another polar vortex sent temperatures in the Twin Cities plummeting to -28F, prompting Gov. Tim Walz to close schools statewide for four days. That winter, the town of Cotton, a two-hour drive northwest of Aitkin, registered an actual air temperature of -56F – twice.

For these reasons, most of the state’s utilities are winterized. For example, wind turbines are insulated and have heat packs, and water towers have pumps that keep the water flowing to prevent freezing.

Year round at the North Pole, a vast expanse of cold air swirls overhead, like a celestial spinning top. During winter months, this polar vortex can wobble and crash, scattering the Arctic’s icy air over much of the Northern Hemisphere.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, this year’s polar vortex has been especially violent and prolonged. In Europe and Asia natural gas prices soared due to the freezing temperatures and increased energy demands brought on by the polar vortex. Sub-zero temperatures in Texas have led to frozen water pipes and widespread power outages. Thermostats in Oklahoma City dropped to -11F, a low not seen there since 1905.             

Unlike Texas, which is an energy island entirely reliant on its own grid, much of Minnesota is connected to a robust energy system that goes from Alabama to Canada.

Dave Cluff, utilities manager at the Aitkin Public Utilities Commission, said he and his colleagues keep a close eye on the temperature of the water when it gets cold, especially if the frost goes down six feet or more. Service lines are typically buried at least six feet or more below the ground.

If needed, the utilities company will tell residents to run their water, just a pencil size stream, to prevent frozen pipes.

“Trying to fix broken or frozen water lines can be miserable,” Cluff said. “We aren’t there yet.”

The Sheriff’s Office is always equipped to respond to weather related emergencies. At whatever time you happen to be reading this, day or night, there are at least two officers out on patrol, in case a vehicle should break down.

“Our 911 dispatch center is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Guida said. “We are all very willing to go out in the cold, in the snow, in the wind to provide emergency services.”

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