When we are deep in the throes of winter and get one of those stretches where the air hurts our faces for 15-20 straight days, we can sometimes hear the local meteorologists talking about the "Polar Vortex." Sounds cold, for sure. But what, exactly, is a polar vortex? Where does it come from? Is there anything we can do to stop it or, at the very least, minimize its paralyzing grip? In this post, we are going to take a closer look at what a polar vortex is and why it can make our winters incredibly cold.
What is the Polar Vortex
In short, the polar vortex is a huge area of cold air and low pressure that surrounds both the North and South Poles. Despite its occasional dip into our part of the world, the polar vortex always exists at the poles. As you might expect, though, it gets a little weaker in the summer months, but picks back up during the winter months.
The "vortex" part of the name stems from the counter-clockwise air flow that actually helps to keep the coldest air near the Poles. Often, during the winter months, the polar vortex in the northern hemisphere will expand and push cold air into the jet stream. The jet stream, then, carries that cold arctic air down into the United States. That blast of cold air can vary in duration... so we've got that going for us.
Some of the years that have recorded the worst cold outbreaks stemming from the polar vortex are 1977, 1982, 1985, 1989, and most recently, 2014.
What is NOT the Polar Vortex
While we've only really heard the polar vortex talked about recently, it is actually not new at all. It's always been there. Further, it's not actually something that exists on the surface of the earth. When meteorologists study the polar vortex, they are actually examining conditions that are tens of thousands of feet up in our atmosphere. When we feel that really cold air on the surface of the earth, though, it is sometimes tied to the polar vortex.
To be certain, the effects of the polar vortex are not limited to just the United States. Because it is a global atmospheric condition, it can also bring seriously cold temps to Europe and Asia.
Unlike a tornado or hurricane that can bring extensive damage to structures and land, the only real danger that the polar vortex poses to humans is the depths of cold it delivers as it expands and sends that frigid arctic air southward into locations that don't normally experience such cold temperatures.
Finally, there is no reason to panic when you hear talk about the polar vortex. It just means that very cold weather is on the way. That means you should dress appropriately and make sure your winter weather safety kit is stocked up just in case it is needed.
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