An unusual wave of bitter cold known as a polar vortex swept across North America in January 2014, bringing record-breaking blizzards and subzero temperatures.
Cities well-versed in surviving brutal winters like Minneapolis and Chicago weren’t the only places to feel exceptionally harsh weather. People as far south as Atlanta experienced single-digit temperatures. Even if you didn’t personally feel it, you probably remember all the news coverage, jokes, and memes.
So I was sitting up in the Arctic, bored off my ass, and suddenly it hit me. ROAD TRIP. Three days later, here I am.— Polar Vortex (@PolarVortex) January 7, 2014
Forecasters are predicting a return of the polar vortex, also known as a winter vortex, this season. Since we’ll be hearing a lot about the weather phenomenon in the upcoming months, let’s take a closer look at what a polar vortex is, and what we can expect.
What Is A Polar Vortex?
The polar vortex is a mass of fast-moving, cold, dense air that sits near the Earth’s poles.
When the vortex is stronger, the air mass circulates in a tighter pattern and stays more closely contained to the poles. A weaker system causes the air to circulate in a looser pattern and get caught in the jet stream, which is what drives the bitter cold into the US and southern Canada.
Here’s why this is happening: a recent study published in Nature found that melting ice in the Arctic has caused the polar vortex to weaken and shift over the past few decades, which is driving temperatures down to lows that are rarely seen in even the coldest cities.
Widespread cooling is happening because of global warming? On the surface, this event seems exactly like the type of thing that proves climate change is a hoax — or greatly exaggerated. As it turns out, the exact opposite is true.
Polar Vortex And Climate Change
As the polar vortex shifts toward Europe and Asia, those parts of the world will experience warmer winters, while North America feels the bitter cold, according to the study.
The extreme cold helps to slightly offset rising global temperatures, but Earth is still on a record-breaking hot streak. While climate change is typically understood to mean warmer weather, it also means the most extreme weather will happen more frequently.
“Climate change can lead to extremes; it’s not like a regular change, everyone to the same extent at all times and places,” Martyn Chipperfield, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the study, told Scientific American.
“Despite the overall warming, you can get in places like the Northeastern US extreme cold events,” he said. “That’s consistent with climate change and global warming.”