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Earth Sense: Prepare for cold during warm stretch
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If you were dreaming of a warm Christmas this season instead of a white one, you got your wish. The week surrounding Dec. 25 was one of the warmest on record in North Georgia.

On Dec. 26, highs in Gainesville reached into the low 70s. Meanwhile, a winter storm was approaching the Midwest with the threat of heavy snow.

The fact the storm was in part responsible for our warm holidays may seem confusing. You can most easily imagine the action of the highs and lows as huge sprocket wheels.

Like all storms, it was a low and turned counterclockwise. The driving force behind it was a large area of air sinking over the cold northwestern quarter of the continent. That made for the Canadian high, turning clockwise.

So in our mental picture there are two interlocking sprockets: a large one turning clockwise and a smaller one with a counterclockwise rotation. The third item in this set of gears was the Bermuda high, located east of our continent on the Atlantic Ocean. It turned clockwise, like all the other highs north of the equator.

With these three connected, giving the one to the “left” (the Canadian high) a stronger spin will also lend the low in the middle additional rotation, but in the opposite direction. This, in turn, also reinforces the clockwise flow from the Bermuda high, which pushes air from the Gulf into the Southeastern states. Warm, wet days are the result.

It can go the other way, too. On Dec. 24, 1983, the records of the National Climatic Data Center recall a strong winter storm passing over North Georgia. Temperatures dropped steadily, accompanied by a light rain that quickly froze, turning roadways into icy skating rinks.

My personal recollection is a white-knuckle drive from Decatur to Athens on almost impassable U.S. 29. By Christmas morning 1983, the thermometer had fallen to minus 1.

Having experienced the warm extreme of Georgia winter weather just now, we still can’t expect it to stay that way. Bitter cold, ice storms and snow are just as likely as ever for the rest of winter.

It helps to be aware that freezing to death isn’t the No. 1 killer in winter storms. It’s road accidents. The warm episodes are a useful break for checking the air pressure and antifreeze in the car, and stocking up on groceries to avoid hazardous trips later.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.