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Forecasters Warn of Another Polar Vortex Freeze-Out

When the polar vortex first arrived earlier this month, it drove record natural gas demand, prompted constraints on pipelines into New England and hampered delivery of other fuels, and now forecasters say the arctic cyclone could make a return appearance before the end of January.

"As the pattern responsible for rounds of nuisance snow and waves of cold air continues into next week, indications are that bitterly cold air will return later in the month courtesy of the polar vortex," said Accuweather.com’s Alex Sosnowski. The polar vortex is expected to strengthen and move farther south later this month, bringing frigid temperatures to the Midwest and East, the meteorologist said Friday.

"There is the chance the cold may rival that of early January in some areas," he said.

Natural gas marketers and end-users know all too well what could be in store. During the first polar vortex, which began on Jan. 6, prices for physical natural gas spiked. Gas traded on Monday, Jan. 6 recorded the three highest prices ever published in NGI’s Daily Gas Price Index, with a few points butting up against the $100/MMBtu level (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6a). The biggest gainers on the day proved to be points in and around New York City.

And some forecasters see the next appearance of the polar vortex lasting longer than the first. Temperatures in portions of the Mid-Atlantic "should average well below normal starting around next Tuesday, lasting at least through the end of January," said Wes Junker of the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang.

A piece of the polar vortex -- an extreme weather event that involves a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near one or both of the planet's geographical poles -- will continue to hover around the Hudson Bay and northern Quebec for several more days, producing a series of weak storms and brief waves of moderately cold air over Southern Canada and the North Central and Eastern United States, Sosnowski said. But during the third and fourth weeks of January, the pattern is expected to get more extreme.

"The polar vortex will move farther south and get stronger," the forecaster said. "The pattern will gradually change the current mixture of Pacific and Arctic air in the Canada Prairies and the North Central U.S. to all Arctic air. The air will get significantly colder over the Canada Prairies and much of the eastern half of the nation as a result...

"The pattern has the potential to produce days of near- to below-zero cold from the Northern Plains to parts of the Midwest, more lasting cold in the Northeast and noteworthy episodes of cold over the interior South. Since the path of the bitterly cold air will be first directed over the North Central states, the cold will not be quite as severe by the time it reaches the Northeast, similar to that of early January."

Cold that clamped down on much of the country during the first week of January prompted constraints on pipelines into New England, and throughput at a central Alabama gas utility ran at 10-year record levels (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6b; Jan. 7). One compressor station outage on the Texas Eastern pipeline in western Pennsylvania resulted in throughput reductions of nearly 600,000 Dth/d, or about 10% of the pipeline load. The high numbers extended south as far as Atlanta (see Daily GPI, Jan. 15; Jan. 14).

Power system operators also reported problems during the cold snap such as frozen coal stockpiles at coal-fired generating stations, problems with fuel-switching at dual-fuel units, and wind turbines reaching their minimum operating temperatures, according to a preliminary review by FERC (see Daily GPI, Jan. 16a). Two nuclear units tripped due to equipment problems, "but it is not clear at this time if the problems were related to the cold temperatures," according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) report.

Preliminary data indicates that forced generation outages were significant in some regions -- at least 50 GW in the most severely impacted areas of the Eastern Interconnection, higher than the historical wintertime average forced outage of 33 GW -- but more analysis is needed to determine how much of it was weather-related, FERC said.

Demand for natural gas hit 137 Bcf/d on Jan. 7, 11 Bcf/d more than the previous winter record set in 2008-2009, according to FERC, driving prices to record highs and helping push withdrawal from storage for the week ending Jan. 10 to a record high 287 Bcf (see Daily GPI, Jan. 16b).

"The Jan. 10 withdrawal is the largest for the 20 years for which data exist and the latest in a season already characterized by withdrawals much larger than average," the Energy Information Administration said Friday. The reported “storage withdrawal was the second record-breaking weekly stock draw this season; the withdrawal of 285 Bcf for the week ending Dec. 13 exceeded the previous record of 274 Bcf from January 2008 [see Daily GPI, Dec. 19. 2013]. Cumulative net withdrawals, as of Jan. 10, 2014, exceeded the previous record levels posted during the 2000-2001 heating season.

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