ITHACA, N.Y. — If this is the holiday gift that keeps on giving, we’re offering to pay for the return shipping.

Looking past the near-constant arctic air that continues to hold the Southern Tier and much of the eastern and Central United States in its icy grip, the weather should be relatively quiet this week. The jet stream will continue to stay relatively entrenched in its western ridge, eastern trough configuration for at least the next week. What that means is continued flow of abnormally cold air from a displaced polar vortex sitting over Canada. A fairly intense storm is likely to develop Thursday into Friday as a low pressure area tracks from the Caroline coast northeast past Cape Cod and towards Nova Scotia, but the system will be too far east to be of any concern to Tompkins County. It might be a bad time to be in Boston, though.

Looking at the forecast, tonight and Wednesday will be comparatively mild, if still about ten degrees below normal. Radiative cooling will allow temperatures to slip to 0°F – 5 above under mostly clear skies, with temperatures warming back up into the low 20s for Wednesday, under mostly sunny skies. Lows Wednesday night will stay in the teens (10 – 15°F) in many places, as clouds build into the region.

On Thursday, as the storm system strengthens off the coast, expect its counterclockwise flow to drag down reinforcing frigid air. While high temperatures may make it to about 20°F for most of the region, the mercury takes a nosedive for later in the day. Temperatures will likely go below zero Thursday night, and on Friday, temperatures may not break zero in many rural or high elevation locations. In the more urban areas, the temperature might make it into the mid single-digits, at best. Most of the region should stay dry, though areas north of Ithaca may find themselves in line for a couple inches of powdery dry lake-effect snow.

Friday night and Saturday are more of the same – temperatures from 0 to -10 F overnight, -5 to 5 F during the day Saturday. Once again, prepare accordingly for punishing, potentially dangerous cold. The National Weather Service’s Binghamton office is calling this “the most brutal” of the cold air masses we’ve seen this winter. Wind chills of -15 to -30°F are likely Friday morning, and in many places, temperatures will not climb into positive values for 2-3 days. Be mindful of pipes, be cautious with heaters and heating supplies, take care of your pets, family members and neighbors, and remember that rock salt doesn’t really work at these temperatures.

This is the type of cold that causes ice to form fast and grow thick – and potentially, grow enough to cover most of even all of Cayuga Lake. The last complete freeze-over was recorded in the severe cold snap of February 1979, which also set the state’s record low temperature. The story goes that if the lake freezes over completely, Wells College up in Aurora cancels classes for the day. It’s probably too early in the season for a 100% frozen lake surface, but it’s something to (grimly?) keep an eye on as the winter progresses.

2-meter height (surface) temperature departures from normal for January 2, 2018. Warm colors indicate above normal temperatures, cold colors indicate below normal temperatures. Image courtesy of the University of Maine-Orono.

It appears that eastern North America is relatively alone in its shivering misery. Most of the globe is enjoying warmer-than-normal conditions. In Alaska, temperatures have been as much as fifty degrees above normal in some places. That sounds great, but then that means the river and sea ice doesn’t grow and thicken like it normally does. That means important trade routes (the “ice road trucker” setups) can’t be used, and the animal life suffers. Parts of California and the southwest have gone months without rain, which puts agricultural interests and firefighters into a potentially bad situation if this pattern holds for the rest of winter. In sum, this is not a great pattern to be locked into.

The NOAA Climate Prediction Center is hinting at a potential return to normal temperatures for at least part of next week, though there still may be a cold shot or two. Later in the month, temperatures may even go above normal for an extended period. But at this point, it’s ‘wait and see’. And hope, perhaps.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.