In our age of marketing, self-promotion and influencers, even Mother Nature has to get in on the act. Hence, the proliferation of news stories, weather forecasts and, most notably, social media posts using the term “polar vortex”, which popped up in early 2014 to describe the cold wave that brought freezing winds and record cold temperatures to North America—and may have also caused worse-than-usual winter storms in Europe.
Though it does sound like a buzzword or product name conjured up by a bunch of Madison Avenue-creatives sitting around a conference table, the moniker is actually the perfect definition of this weather phenomenon. Polar, as we all know, means, “relating to the North or South poles,” which to all of us would imply cold. Vortex is defined as “a mass of whirling fluid or air,” which in this case means the latter—wind. So that means a polar vortex is a mass of low pressure and cold air that blows in circling around the Polar Regions.
Contrary to what a lot of folks think, the polar vortex isn’t something new just because we hear it all the time now. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “the term first appeared in an 1853 issue of E. Littell's ‘Living Age.’"
Since then, meteorologists have blamed this weather pattern for some of the most extreme cold snaps the US and Canada have ever seen, including the “Great Arctic Outbreak” of 1899 that killed over 100 people, decimated crops and, also according to NOAA, even “heavily damaged buildings and infrastructure across much of the country.” Other newsworthy vortex events occurred in 1936, 1970, 1977, 1983, 1989, 1996 and the aforementioned 2014, as well as in 2019.
Though it may seem like it appears and disappears once every couple of years or so, the polar vortex isn’t just created on the coldest days of the year and then ceases to exist. It hangs out up or down in the arctic regions year-round, swirling around counter-clockwise miles high in the sky. In the summer, it stays closer to the poles, but during winter it drifts further away—but it’s usually kept within the Polar Regions by the polar jet streams, which run across the bottom of the vortex.
Let’s focus on the northern hemisphere because the polar vortex by the South Pole is more stable due to less land masses around it that can cause fluctuations in its movement. So up north, there’s a jet stream moving at nearly 300 miles per hour, 30,00 feet in the air that is powered by the difference in temperature between the cold air above it at the North Pole and the warmer air below it closer to the equator. It whips around the globe and acts as a fence to keep frigid polar air in place.
But when this counter-clockwise (it goes clockwise around the South Pole) jet stream loses steam due to warm air pushing up from the south, the warm air (which is lighter) displaces the cold air (which is heavier). Looking for a place to go, the displaced cold air—known as a daughter vortex—goes south to where the warm air came from—places like Canada and the Midwest and Northeast in USA that often feel the brunt of a polar vortex. This event usually lasts a week or so before the jet stream stabilizes and temperatures return to normal for the season.
We can all agree we’ve been hearing a lot more about polar vortexes in recent years. But is that due to climate change or just the proliferation of tweets about it?” Pretty straightforward question, but the answer isn’t so cut and dry. An article in Stanford Earth from the university’s School Of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences stated, “for the last 20 years or so, the polar vortex has been very, very disturbed in the middle of winter.”
This could be because the destruction of the ozone layer by human-emitted greenhouse gases has actually made the polar stratosphere—the upper atmosphere that includes the ozone layer—cooler. Meanwhile, according to NASA, what we refer to as global warming has seen the lower atmosphere temperature rise “0.6 to 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.1 to 1.6° F) between 1906 and 2005, and the rate of temperature increase has nearly doubled in the last 50 years.”
The bigger difference in cold air up high and warm air down low means we could be in for more polar vortex events in the future. There’s also research that shows that the global warming-caused disappearance of ice from the Arctic Ocean causes the polar vortex to wobble, creating more chances for frigid air to escape south and stay longer given the unstable jet stream.
This last hypothesis is backed up by joint research study from Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which finds that the warming trend at the poles called Arctic amplification—they’re heating up “at least twice as fast” as the rest of the planet—can cause weather patterns to persist, which means the “cold spells” and “storminess” that come with a polar vortex will become more “persistent.”
Because of that, it is important to be always be prepared for the worst Mother Nature has to offer no matter what the folks on Twitter call it.
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