Ice storm and widespread power outages in Michigan: U-M experts available

February 23, 2023
Screenshot of Consumers Energy Outage map.

More than 600,000 Michiganders were without power Thursday following a severe ice storm in southeast Michigan. University of Michigan experts are available to discuss the event and its aftermath.

Seth Guikema is co-director of the Center for Risk Analysis Informed Design Engineering and a professor of industrial and operations engineering. He works with utilities on forecasting power outages, including for ice events.

“The combination of ice and wind forecast for this afternoon is particularly bad. Ice weighs things down, stressing trees and power lines, and we already have many outages. If this doesn’t melt before the wind hits, we’re probably going to get a lot more power outages,” he said.

“We’re already at 20% of DTE customers out of power, and it’s going to take days to reach all of them. Most utilities have some variation of a 3-tier prioritization: First, restore power to critical facilities like hospitals. Then, some utilities will prioritize feeders that serve commercial areas with grocery stores, so people have access to food. Moving to residential areas, utilities prioritize restoring power to the maximum number of people for the level of effort.

“When companies think about preventing outages like this, burying lines will shelter them from ice and falling branches, but cost estimates are roughly a million dollars a line mile. However, changes to how lines connect to cross-arms on utility poles can make restoration faster, and this may be a more cost-effective way to adapt to more frequent ice storms.”

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Parth Vaishnav is an assistant professor of sustainable systems at the School for Environment and Sustainability. His research is focused on developing strategies to equitably eliminate fossil fuel use for buildings and transportation.

Vaishnav lives in Scio Township, outside of Ann Arbor, and his home lost power early Thursday morning. He owns a Kia EV6 electric vehicle.

“We’re using our EV battery to run the fridge and a couple of lights in the house. About half the battery’s capacity should allow us to run that level of load for about a week,” he said. “However, we’re heating the house with a gas fire. We need to stop burning things to stave off the worst effects of climate change and use electricity to heat our homes. To do that equitably, we need a robust electricity grid.”

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Keenan Gibbons is a lecturer at the School for Environment and Sustainability and a licensed landscape architect and urban design professional practicing in southeast Michigan. His expertise is in the sustainable planning, design and implementation of green infrastructure, parks, streetscapes and creative stormwater management strategies.

“In my life, I’ve witnessed sporadic unseasonal midwinter Michigan rain and ice, but in just the past decade that has now become the seasonal norm,” he said. “The typically deep-winter month of February has been effectively characterized by 50 degrees Fahrenheit and rain here in lower Michigan.

“As average global temperatures continue to rise, we can expect a generational shift in what each of us used to identify as ‘typical’ Michigan weather. Abroad, these year-to-year increasingly frequent droughts, wildfires, severe weather, heatwaves, sea level rise and flooding are our first-person, human-scale understanding of it. On a scientific timescale, it is unprecedented.”

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Richard Rood is a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the College of Engineering and professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on U.S. weather modeling and can discuss the connection between weather, climate and society. He is also a co-principal investigator at the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, a federally funded partnership between U-M and Michigan State University.

“This ice storm is one of the many symptoms of a warming winter,” he said. “Freezing rain is occurring in a place that, historically, was far more likely to see snow. Winter snowstorms, which can have record snow amounts, are followed by rain and melting.

“The message? There is definitive warming in the Great Lakes region. The decline of lake ice and the changes in freezing rain are both directly related to increasing air and water temperature. This storm is, perhaps, extraordinary compared to the past. However, it should not be viewed as extraordinary compared to the future. It is just the beginning.”

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Stella Cousins is an assistant research scientist and lecturer at the School for Environment and Sustainability. Her areas of expertise include forest ecology, tree mortality, the dynamics of forest structure and ecosystem response to disturbances like weather events, fires and air pollution.

“As ice accumulates from freezing rain, it weighs down trees’ twigs, branches and their entire canopy. While trees are so heavily laden with ice, they are prone to sudden breakage at the slightest change. Even a faint breeze or the rumble of a truck can shift significant weight,” she said.

“Since climate models predict that both more rain and more freezing rain will affect Michigan in the future, we should anticipate how this will challenge our trees, our forests, and the power and transportation infrastructure that is intertwined with them.”

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Frank Marsik is an associate research scientist in climate and space science.

“As always, there are a number of factors that play a role in any given event,” he said. “In addition to the longer-term climate trends, we are also in the midst of a La Niña episode this winter, with cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. This tends to alter the large-scale weather patterns, such as the jet stream, and associated storm tracks from their climatological averages. In addition, we are currently experiencing a sudden stratospheric warming event, which impacts our jet stream positioning, as well.

“There are a lot of layers to the conditions experienced in any given winter season, but the climate shifts will likely change what we have typically observed in the past.”

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Sue Anne Bell is a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at the School of Nursing. Her research focuses on the impact of disasters and public health emergencies on health, particularly among older adults. Bell is active in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Advisory Council, and has had recent disaster deployments through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service to the COVID-19 response, Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires.

“As the recent ice and snow storms have reminded many Michiganders, access to affordable and dependable electricity is a necessity. First responders and emergency health providers will tell you that they brace for the surge of patients that inevitably comes when the power goes out. The disruption and personal loss caused by the recent power outages should serve as a wake up call to communities and policymakers to focus on providing essential life-saving services to those disproportionately impacted by power outages during an extreme weather event.”

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