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Paying the Polar Vortex Piper

By Hal M. Bundrick

NEW YORK (MainStreet) How many Americans trudged outside to their cars this morning, chipped away the ice enough to unlock the doors, plopped down onto freezing car seat and twisted the key to the ignition -- only to hear the click-click-click-click of a dead battery?

The arctic blast sinisterly designated the Polar Vortex will be coldly crippling the morning routines of millions of Americans this week.

Why is cold weather so brutal? Its effects are wide ranging. Diesel engines bear the brunt of the damage as the fuel gels at extreme low temps and stalls trucking and rail traffic. Ice coats bridges and highways, slowing or diverting traffic completely. Rivers freeze, halting barge and ship navigation. And of course, extreme cold weather is poison to vehicle batteries. Your Chevy Volt or Tesla Model S will especially suffer the consequences. Electric cars lose as much as 25% of their driving range in freezing weather.

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But extreme cold is also lethal.

A 2007 study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research examined the rate of fatalities after at least 24 hours at temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees below normal. The results were chilling. Though the researchers could not determine why, women accounted for two-thirds of deaths following a period of severe cold. Infants and males living in low-income areas were also at high risk of dying after a cold spell.

And while death rates decline dramatically after hot spells subside, deaths following frigid temps continue to increase for weeks. Research also indicates that those at greatest risk are engaged in outdoor activity, or are elderly and chronically exposed to frigid indoor temperatures.

Less importantly, extreme cold is a pocketbook issue. Energy consumption rises and heating costs soar. Pipes burst and water pressure suffers in major metro areas. A broken water main in Denver recently forced the entire evacuation of critically ill patients from a Veteran's Hospital in sub-zero temperatures. Schools and businesses close. And the cost of snow removal strains municipal budgets.

The agricultural industry suffers as well, with lost crops and livestock. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the major freeze of 1983-84 destroyed over $1 billion of the citrus crop in Florida, while Louisiana lost 80% of its citrus crop.

Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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