How the polar vortex wreaked havoc on the automotive industry

Texan snowstorms have led to the closure of car production plants across the world. Could rising Arctic temperatures be to blame?

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Less than an hour's drive east of Prague sits one of Toyota's largest European factories that produces more than 16,000 cars a month. On 22 March, however, production at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Czech Republic (TMMCR) grounded to a halt. Production is not expected to restart until 5 April.

TMMCR is a victim of the global semiconductor crisis. Across the world, the automotive sector has been hit hardest by a computer chip shortage triggered by the rise of home-working, exacerbated by the US-China trade war and prolonged by a period of extreme winter weather in the US.

But what is causing temperatures to plunge? Why are climate scientists at odds over the unusual weather? And what does the severe cold spell mean for the automotive and semiconductor industries at a time when silicon nationalism is rising?

Two days before Toyota unveiled plans to close TMMCR, the company announced it would pause production at its north American sites. In the same week, executives came within hours of shutting British plants too. Honda, Nissan and Ford are among the other manufacturers to have closed production sites across central and northern America in recent weeks.

As the silicon crisis has worsened, attention has turned to Taiwan. The country produces more semiconductors than any other – and its territory is disputed by Beijing, which is developing its own sovereign chip making capability in the wake of trade restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.

Uncertainty over Taiwan's future means the US is under pressure to relocate US chip manufacturing. While many of the most high-profile American chip designers currently outsource production to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Intel announced last week that it plans to spend $20bn on a new foundry in Arizona.

[See also: Can the US and China forge an alliance over the climate crisis?]

The rise of silicon nationalism and extreme weather in the US has renewed scrutiny of the country's existing chip production infrastructure. Austin, Texas hosts two of the world's largest automotive silicon chip producers, NXP and Infineon. When Toyota shut down its Czech manufacturing site, the firm blamed the shortage of chips on the poor weather in the US.

Temperatures plunged to as low as -18c in Texas during February. Energy and transportation routes were disrupted and millions were left without power and water. A total of 111 people died as a result of the storm.

Questions over what caused the extreme weather underpin a contentious field of emerging climate science. Meteorologists are in agreement that the cold weather was triggered by air that had been released when the polar vortex – an area of spinning low pressure that sits in the atmosphere above the Arctic – had split. They also agree that winters are generally warming in mid-latitude regions such as Texas, with temperature increases observed in the month of December followed by colder January and February months, at least in the years when the polar vortex is weaker. 

But scientists are at odds over the cause of the disruption. Most believe the winter storms are only an example of natural variability in the climate system that will be eliminated by global warming over time. But Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, believes that rising temperatures in the Arctic, which is heating faster than anywhere else, are causing greater interference with the jet stream. In turn, says Cohen, these interferences are causing more frequent polar vortex disruptions, releasing the cold air that has brought weeks of snow storms to Texas.

The second half of the winter is a “combination of this dance”, says Cohen. “It's a balancing act between the overall warming, which is leading to milder winters, and then this increase in polar vortex disruptions. You're actually getting this combination of an overall warmer world but this increasing probability of getting an impactful polar vortex disruption like we saw in January. This was kind of an extended or multiple act polar vortex disruption this year. It covered all of January and extended into the first half of February.”

Cohen doesn't believe winters will become colder. "The Sixties and Seventies were very cold decades," he says. "I’m not arguing that we’re going to see winters as cold or colder than that. That’s not my argument. But winters are not warming as fast as the models say they should be or as we’re expecting. Snow storms aren’t disappearing."

The meteorologist admits he's in the "small minority" of climate scientists who believe that a region as small and energy poor as the Arctic could influence weather in other parts of the world. But he is buoyed by the accuracy of his forecast for this year.

While conventional forecasts more accurately predicted the winter of 2019-20, Cohen's modelling significantly outperformed all major government forecast centres this year. “The main argument against this idea is that there's large variability in the system,” says Cohen. “If there’s such large variability, how come all the [other] models look the same?” 

[See also: “We all struggle with despair” - Naomi Klein on overcoming doomism with climate action]

If Cohen and his fellow forecasters are correct, what does this mean for the future of a place that plays such a critical role in the automotive supply chain? As well as producing silicon chips, Texas also manufactures plastics used in car manufacturing – an area of supply that has also been squeezed by the storms

“Don’t rush to expect to adopt the rosiest scenarios that there’s very little winter weather,” says Cohen, who notes that the state of Texas had been to urged to winterise its energy grid but ignored the warnings. “Texas doesn’t see that type of cold that often. But don’t plan on not getting any winter weather – don’t think climate change is going to take care of that for you.”

[See also: Why the Fukushima disaster signalled the end of Big Nuclear​]

Oscar Williams is a senior journalist at the New Statesman covering technology.

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