What The Polar Vortex And A Gas Explosion Taught Me About Human Nature

Last week, Michigan and much of the Midwest went through the coldest spell in 25 years when the polar vortex blew arctic air upon us.  It was a brutal stretch.  We saw high temperatures barely above zero.  Low temperatures were in the minus-teens.  Factor in the wind chill, and it felt like 40 or 50 below-zero.  It sucked.  Luckily, it was only for a few days, and temperatures like this aren’t regular occurrences.  But, as much as the cold weather seemed to be ‘the event’, it turned into something more.  And I learned a lot.  I learned about human nature. About good people and unfortunately about selfishness.

frozen pipes

Our Polar Vortex

It got cold last week.  Really cold.  The last time it was this cold was 25 years ago.  I remember that because I was a student at college doing an internship where I had to drive 50 miles one-way, five days per week.  So, walking to my car and starting it each morning was a nightmare.  I didn’t have an app to start my car back then.  Remote start was still a dream.  It was walk to the car, put the key in, hope it started, and wait for it to warm up.  So, yeah, I remember the last one.

This one wasn’t a whole lot better.  My truck doesn’t fit in my garage.  It’s literally two inches too long.  So, it sits outside.  That means that the temperature and the wind chill hit my ride in full force.  If I were to be able to park it inside the garage, the real-feel would be probably 20 degrees warmer.

But there I was doing whatever I could to protect the truck.  I parked it right up against the house.  In between my house and the neighbors.  I insulated the battery the best I could. On the worst morning, where the actual temperature was minus-13, it started. Barely. It took a second before it even started trying to turn over, then another three seconds before it did.

Luckily that was the worst of it, for my truck anyway.

For the Detroit area, things actually were a little dicey.

An Explosion

On the coldest day in 25 years, at one of the factories that the gas company uses, an explosion happened.  There was a big boom.  There were fires.   What had previously been supplying about 60% of the gas supply to the entire metro Detroit area was suddenly unenviable.

Luckily, just as quickly as they were able to shut those supply lines down, they brought others online.  Other storage areas started supplying gas almost right away.  Looking at it now, it’s actually quite remarkable.  Nobody lost gas service.  Furnaces kept running.  Building stayed warm.

To me, it was actually quite amazing that nobody lost service.  There was obviously redundancy built into the system. Which, is a really good thing as it turns out.

High Gas Demand During The Polar Vortex

I’m not an expert on how natural gas works.  But, here’s my basic understanding.  The gas company has storage facilities that they use to store natural gas.  They buy it when it’s cheaper, presumably summer, and then lower their stores during the winter season.  At peak storage capacity, our gas company can store around 300 billion units of natural gas.

That sounds like a pretty big number.  It is.

On average days in winter, Michigan draws about 2.5 billion units per day.  During last week’s cold stretch they began a draw of 3.3 billion units per day.  This wouldn’t have been a problem until the explosion happened.

While the gas was still in the ground, a big chunk couldn’t be accessed.  On top of that, the extra 30% demand was a lot for the system to handle.

The gas company started to worry if they would be able to meet the demand.  Would other storage areas become depleted?  Could the high demand put too much pressure on the system?  What if another explosion happened at a different facility?

The system had a lot of redundancy built in.  This is obvious with the fact that when the explosion happened that nobody lost gas to their house.  But, at this point, any further problems and there might not be redundancy.

In other words, the system was at risk of failure.  With wind chills that would (and did) freeze people to death in a matter of minutes, or hours, this couldn’t happen.  The gas company wouldn’t tolerate even a risk of this.

So they sent out a plea.

A Call For Action

The gas company started sending out messages asking people and companies to reduce demand.  They knew that high demand would increase the risk of failure.  It simply couldn’t happen.

As the hours passed after the explosion, demand wasn’t going down.  So, they started making calls.  They started calling some of the biggest users of gas.  They called General Motors, who have factories all around the area. Other big companies were called. The state of Michigan was brought in.  Eventually, GM agreed to shut down plants the next day and the state agreed to  reduce usage.

It wasn’t enough.

Consumers had to become involved.  Furnaces in every home were running almost non-stop.

At around 10:30pm, our governor agreed that this was an emergency.  The emergency alert system was activated.  Messages went across TVs.  Cell phones blared the emergency warning.  I won’t lie.  My wife and I both got woken up.

The message was simple.  Please turn your thermostats down.  Reduced gas usage is needed.  Otherwise, a potential outage could occur.

Who Responds for The Greater Good?

It was interesting going on social media following the call for action.  Many people talked about how they reluctantly were turning down their temperature.  But, there was a very vocal group that was having no part of it.  And, woah, did they make some noise.

  • Conspiracy.  Some people were convinced that this was a major conspiracy by the gas company to increase profits.  I couldn’t figure out this logic as reduced usage would mean they’re selling gas.  By math, that decreases profits.  But OK.
  • Misinformation.  People claimed that their pipes would freeze if they turned their temperatures that low.  I mean, I guess if you have pipes running along exterior walls, but wouldn’t they be at risk no matter what?
  • Babies and old people.  Some cried out how unsafe it was to expose the very young or very old to lower temperatures.  Here’s the thing.  If they’d have read the e-mails or watched any news stories that expanded the detail, they would have found out that the gas company was OK if you had a circumstance that required you to turn keep your furnace up.
  • I Pay For My Gas! The biggest thing that some people used as an argument was that they paid for their gas and they were going to use as much as they wanted.  If they wanted to keep their house at 74 because they didn’t like wearing sweaters, they had the right to do so!  And by golly, they were going to do exactly that!

Selfishness and Risk

The people who used that last argument were the people that made me shake my head.

I just don’t get it.

Nobody was asking anybody to go turn off their furnace.  They just wanted you to turn it down.  If nobody turned it down, then there was an actual chance that everybody could have lost service.  By my view, turning it down a few degrees and having heat still available is much better than leaving it high but then seeing the entire system fail.  Then, you don’t have any heat.

But, you honestly had people that didn’t care.  Seeing how their actions had the chance of impacting others made no difference.  They just figured enough other people would take care of turning down their heat.

Good People Exist

Thankfully, enough people did do just that.  After the alert went out, the gas company saw demand drop about 10-15%.  This was exactly what was needed.  The strain was dropped on the system and the gas company was able to keep service available for all customers.

It wasn’t just people in homes that heeded the call.  Factories with high gas usage agreed to shut down for a day.  People were on social media complaining about their houses being a little colder, but showing that they participated.  I saw some polls on Facebook that showed over 90% of people did their part.

Still, those other 10%.  What’s up with that?  Seriously.  If you had a reason to keep the heat on, fine.  But, if you just kept it on because you wanted to or because you wanted to, then here’s my advice to you.

Selfish people should pack up and move!


Please, just go somewhere else.  We’re in the Midwest and over the years people have learned to stick together and look out for people.  It’s part of who we are.

Thank You To The Majority

For those that did their part, thank you.  Thank you that nobody had to lose their gas service.  Thank you that the quick response led to the voluntary restrictions lasting barely 24 hours.  I appreciate it and I’m sure others do as well.  You’re the ones that still give me hope. In the end, we can choose to focus on the selfishness of those who wouldn’t help.  But here today, I’m ending with a thanks to those who did.

You’re the neighbors and the friends and the good willed people.  Thank you.  Let’s hope the rest learn from you.

Readers, did you get affected by last week’s cold snap?  What would you have done if you were asked to dial down your thermostat for the greater good?  Are there any practical reasons I missed for not doing so?  Please let me know in the comments below.  Thanks so much for reading.


2 thoughts on “What The Polar Vortex And A Gas Explosion Taught Me About Human Nature”

  1. Wow! What an experience! Your story makes me mighty happy that I live in a place that gets hot, not cold.

    It has been a little crisp here as we’ve seen the fringe of the phenomenon — gosh, almost down to 32 degrees one night. 😉

    We have the opposite issue: it gets so hot here that it can strain the power system. More likely, though, it will strain your checking account. The most efficient air-conditioner you can get is called a heat pump. It cools well and keeps the bills down (well, comparatively speaking). But it doesn’t cope with cold well: let the outside temps get down into the low 30s, and the thing will blow cold air in through the vents.

    Accordingly, I have a number of space heaters. Whenever it’s bearable, I refrain from using the HVAC for heating at all — leave it cold at night; heat the space that I’m going to be occupying first thing in the morning; then just wait for the sun beating down on the roof and the black security doors to take the chill off. Can’t even imagine living where it gets as cold as we’ve seen in the Midwest and East.

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