Unrelenting cold weather is nothing new to hardy Midwesterners, even if the term polar vortex is not.
Before this recent polar plunge the last time we were hit by a large outbreak of Arctic air was in 2014. When I heard the term polar vortex I thought it sounded like the name of a ride at an amusement park.
The weather phenomenon is nothing new, the National Weather Service reminds us. Similar outbreaks occurred in 1977, 1982, 1985 and 1989.
The name refers to the counterclockwise flow of air that normally keeps the colder air near the earth’s poles.
I guess years ago we simply called it a cold snap. I prepared for the latest frigid weather by covering the cistern where our water pressure tank sits with a layer of old hay to prevent it from freezing and cut plenty of wood to keep feeding the ravenous wood boiler.
It’s still a challenge to coax vehicles and tractors to start, which made me recall a brutal stretch of winter we had 25 years ago.
For 13 out of 15 days from Jan. 7 through Jan. 21, 1994, the overnight lows were below zero. And not just a little below zero. We had lows of -22, -31, -29 and -33 on Jan. 17 through 20, with the -33 still standing as the ninth-coldest day in La Crosse weather history. The high temperature on Jan. 18 was minus-16.
We were living in West Salem at the time and had no garage. My vehicle was a 1986 Ford Escort with more than 100,000 miles and the original battery. By my recollection it was the last year that model featured a carburetor, requiring some finesse with the footfeed to get it started.
But start it did and I drove it daily to my newspaper job in La Crosse.
However, on the last day of the super cold weather I noticed that the car was running a little rough. I gassed it up and put in a bottle of gas line antifreeze.
I was a couple miles from home when the sputtering became more like an asthmatic attack, with the car lurching back and forth.
Suddenly there was a loud kaboom and smoke poured out from under the hood. The engine quit and I coasted into a nearby parking lot. I turned the key over but the engine made a strange whining noise, as did I when I had to hike the rest of the way home.
I called my mechanic for a tow and the next day I received the diagnosis. Something had sent a fireball up through the carburetor, vaporizing the air cleaner and actually melting the carburetor. I was fortunate that the entire engine did not ignite.
They replaced the carb and I was back in business. Perhaps the fiery belch helped clear out the carbon, as it never happened again. I drove the car for another 50,000 miles before selling it to a coworker for a few hundred bucks.
The volatile hay market
This is the time of year when I start worrying about whether I’ll have enough hay to feed the animals until spring.
Apparently it’s not a year where you want to be buying hay. A recent story by Wisconsin Public Radio reported that some livestock owners and feed suppliers across Wisconsin are reporting local hay shortages.
Richard Halopka, a crops and soils agent with University of Wisconsin-Extension in Clark County, told WPR he doesn’t think there is a hay shortage as much as more low quality hay this year. Prices on the lower quality hay have increased from $50 a ton in October to near $100 a ton.
The most recent hay price report compiled by Halopka on Jan. 14 showed prices ranging from $119 a ton on the lowest grade of hay to $219 a ton on prime small square bales.
My hay is certainly not prime, but I still have small squares for the sheep and large rounds for the cattle. I hope it’s enough — if we have a normal spring. But if we have a wintry April like last year, I may be a buyer come spring.