While we may have escaped the worst of it here in Lincoln, Nebraska, the polar vortex has been dominating the national and international conversation the last two weeks. As officials scrambled to warn of the dangers of frigid temps dominating the upper Midwest, many are concerned about what these weather patterns mean.
Is this a result of global warming? If so, why is it so cold? All the ice, snow and other water-related dangers and issues it has ushered in have left many questions unanswered. So, this week, we’re answering them! We’ll talk about the history of the polar vortex, its ties to global warming and the additional consequences of the polar vortex around the globe.
History of the Polar Vortex
Hopefully this will ease your mind: The polar vortex is normal. What’s abnormal are the deviations we’re seeing from its traditional pattern. “The polar vortex” actually refers to the counterclockwise circulation of upper-level winds called jet streams surrounding the Arctic. Typically, the polar vortex is what keeps all that cold air and ice trapped in the north, stopping it from creeping out of the Arctic circle. However, we’ve seen the vortex venture this far south before.
Just four short years ago, the term “polar vortex” began to take hold in society’s collective conscious when an unprecedented cold wave swept throughout Canada and the Northeast United States. So, while the polar vortex is a normal part of the Earth’s climate patterns, issues are arising as the limits of the vortex are being pushed further and further south.
Ties to Global Warming
So, is this the vortex’s presence in North America a side effect of global warming? Most experts say yes with one caveat. Changes in polar vortex patterns are most likely due to global warming, but more research needs to be conducted to fully verify that fact. However, we do know a thing or two already.
Evidence suggests that the slow warming of the planet is one of the driving forces behind disruptions in the shape of the jet stream’s travel pattern. While the vortex usually encircles the Arctic, trapping cold air farther north, its pattern has warped. Instead of a circle, the path of the jet stream has become wavy, allowing the extremely cold Arctic air to travel further south. Research shows that as ice thins and melts in the Arctic, more heat is being absorbed and trapped in the ocean. That heat is then released into the atmosphere during winter, causing winds that disrupt and alter the shape of the jet streams.
Even an NPR article which originally reported that the polar vortex wasn’t necessarily linked to global warming changed its tune shortly after. It added a note from Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, who told NPR, “[The polar vortex breaking up] is … nothing new—this I’m sure has been happening for millions of years, if not hundreds of millions of years. But it just seems to have gotten more frequent recently.”
Additional Consequences to the Vortex
The Midwest isn’t the only place feeling the effects of changing Arctic jet streams. Australia’s summer has been just as extreme as our winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. They’ve experienced record highs and wildfires have ravaged parts of the country. Certain sporting events have been called off, postponed or shortened due to the extreme heat, and snakes are taking cover in residents’ toilets to keep cool.
In Alaska—a place you’d expect to be frigid in January—unprecedented heat waves have led to the cancellation of the Willow 300 Dog Race this year. The organization cited poor trail conditions due to unseasonably warm weather and rain which could disrupt frozen lakes or other checkpoints. It’s the third dog sled race in the state that’s been cancelled in January.
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