- Education and Science»
- Geology & Atmospheric Science
Polar Vortex' Extra-Cold Winter
What is the Polar Vortex?--A "polar vortex" consists of the circular currents of cold air that sweep down upon inhabited areas from the poles, usually the North Pole, since most people affected by the cold air live in the Northern Hemisphere.
Normally, these currents of air stay close to the poles, but when they sweep and extra distance into areas where people live in the winter, many wonder why the season is so cold.
During some winters, the northern vortex can cause a prolonged cold spell when the cold air travels away from the pole and toward cities and towns. At times, scientists can detect more than one area of swirling cold air. One may turn and travel toward the Eastern Hemisphere while the other may go in an opposite direction toward the Western Hemisphere.
For example, in the winter of 2013 there were two masses of cold air traveling southward from the North Pole. One came down over Siberia, while the other situated itself high up in the North Atlantic Ocean between England and northern Canada.
Places not directly touched by a swirling mass of air from the Polar Vortex still may experience prolonged, harsh winters although these places may be a thousand miles or more from the Vortex itself.
The Predictability of the Winds--The effect of the Polar Vortex is not unique to Earth. Astronomers have observed that other planets seem to have similar masses of air traveling away from their poles.
The strength of the winds inside a traveling Polar Vortex from the North or South Pole in winter time can be tremendous, reaching the same speed as a powerful tornado. The mass of swirling air itself is huge, often 600 miles in diameter.
Scientists feel that they have discovered what causes the Polar Vortex. In a year when the summer has been exceptionally hot, the Polar winds tend to be especially cold in the winter. It's almost as if the winter were trying to compensate for the summer heat by letting the chilly winds sweep farther to the south than usual.
Another factor that seems connected with the temperature of the atmosphere is that in years when there have been more than the usual number of volcanic eruptions in the vicinity of the Equator, making the atmosphere extremely hot, the Polar Vortex again seems to react to this by producing extremely cold winter winds that stretch away from the Pole and into inhabited regions.
The Connection with Global Warming--Global warming has become common everywhere. Scientists aren't the only ones noticing it. Similarly, harsh winters have become more noticeable. The Polar Vortex effect appears to be keeping pace with the global warming. Scientists now are linking the two together.
Melting ice at the Poles appears to have an effect on the jet stream of air coming from arctic regions. Although high-altitude swirling air at the Poles always was common in the past, separate masses of cold, cyclone-like air have hovered over inhabited areas in the past few years.
Some scientists are claiming that the Polar Vortex has caused more than just the extra-cold winters. They feel the entire climate of Earth now is becoming unstable.
The key debate on both sides of the issue now is whether people can do anything about the severity of the climate in summer and winter. This is where politicians and national leaders debate over the role of fossil fuels (mainly oil) in global warming and corresponding Polar Vortex winters. But many countries now are convinced enough of the connection to start major efforts to substitute solar or wind power whenever possible.