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What is a Polar Vortex?

What is a Polar Vortex?

By Tim Butcher

In case you haven’t noticed, things have gotten pretty cold recently. And by pretty cold, we mean holy-mother-of-God-somebody-broke-the-weather-what-is-happening kind of cold. The name we’ve been given for this phenomenon is a ‘polar vortex’. Well, It sounds pretty awesome. Kind of like the kind of thing that a particularly high level Pokemon might use as a signature attack or something that the TARDIS might get stuck in after mistakenly landing on a inhospitable planet. But just what the heck is it? Where has it come from? What does it want? When is it going?

Basically, a polar vortex is a massive arctic storm—a thousand mile wide cyclone of freezing air whirling around tens of thousands of feet up in the earth’s atmosphere. The thing is, they’re usually confined to the either the north or south poles, but for some reason this one has split apart, causing cold air expand southward.

In other words, temperatures that would usually just be occurring in the arctic are now occurring in populated parts of the country. And because the freezing air is so dense, it takes ages to dissipate—which is why it’s expanding so far.

So why has this happened? Well, right now, the whole thing is open to speculation. Some scientists think that global warming may have played a part. They say that warmer than average conditions can weaken the vortex, causing it to split. They’ve pointed to a similar thing happening in 2009, when temperatures in the Midwest plummeted down to -22 degrees. But, really, nothing's known for sure.

The good news is that it’s not expected to be around for much longer. Temperatures are forecast to start climbing back up to normal levels today, and some parts of the North should be seeing 30s and 40s by the end of the week. Just like that, we're back to normal. But in the meantime, the only thing anyone can really do is stay warm, stay safe…pretty much just stay inside!

What are you doing to pass the time until the big chill leaves us?

Tags: science, weather, winter, cold

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