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Facts About the Polar Vortex and Extreme Winter Weather

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Variations in the Polar Vortex Affect Weather in the Mid-Latitudes

 Shows how variations in the polar vortex affects weather in the mid-latitudes
Shows how variations in the polar vortex affects weather in the mid-latitudes | Source

What is a Polar Vortex?

During the winter of 2014 in the northern hemisphere we’ve been hearing about the polar vortex on weather forecasts for more than two months. But what is a polar vortex?

There are actually two polar vortices. One is over the south pole, called the Antarctic Polar Vortex and one over the north pole, called the Arctic Polar Vortex. The Antarctic Vortex is larger, stronger and more stable than its counterpart to the north partially due to less disturbance from the land mass below. The polar vortex was first described in Littell's Living Age No. 495, 12 November 1853, p. 430.

The Shore of Lake Michigan, Leelanau County, Michigan

Winter 2014 in the northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan, Leelanau County.  In the summer these are pristine, Lake Michigan beaches.
Winter 2014 in the northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan, Leelanau County. In the summer these are pristine, Lake Michigan beaches. | Source

The Four Meteorological Factors Impacting Our Weather

I have been thinking of these vortices and how they behave as a stage play in which there are multiple characters interacting. While we may think of the polar vortex phenomenon as one atmospheric condition having an effect on our weather, it is actually several different atmospheric conditions impacting one another. The results of that encounter have left us cold and under an abnormally thick blanket of snow. So here are the players in this meteorological tragedy being played out on the stratospheric stage.

  1. Polar Vortex-These are for all practical purposes, gigantic cyclones spinning around over the earth’s poles. The reason they are spinning is due to the rotation of the earth. This is called the Coriolis Effect. The polar vortices are massively powerful but are at their weakest after the long winter. By then, they have decayed a great deal and spend the summer recovering. In the fall, they begin strengthening for their wintertime battle with the next character in this firmamental performance.
  2. Anticyclones-According to weatherquestions.com an anticyclone, also known as a high pressure area, is a large atmospheric circulation system with the wind flowing clockwise around it in the Northern Hemisphere, and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.” These systems are created near the equator for both the northern and southern hemispheres. As summer moves into fall and fall into winter, anticyclones make their way toward their respective poles to reek havoc with the polar vortex residing there.
  3. The Earth’s Atmosphere-The parts of the atmosphere that come into play in this matter are the troposphere and the stratosphere. The polar vortex is located almost exclusively in the Stratosphere. It is at its widest and strongest in the higher elevations.
  4. Westerlies-These are the prevailing winds in both the northern and southern hemispheres and are responsible for transporting most of the earth’s weather systems. They blow from west to east.

The Earth's Atmosphere

The Arctic and Antarctic Polar Vortices are located in the Stratosphere.  Weather patterns on earth occur in the Troposphere.
The Arctic and Antarctic Polar Vortices are located in the Stratosphere. Weather patterns on earth occur in the Troposphere. | Source

The Lifecycle of a Polar Vortex

It is easiest to grasp how these four players interact by following the lifecycle of the polar vortex. In the spring and summer, the polar vortex is at its weakest and in its most decayed condition. In the fall, as temperatures in the stratosphere drop, the polar vortex begins to revive. By November or December in the north and by March in the south the polar vortices have fully recovered and at their highest strength. As long as the vortices remain relatively undisturbed and in place, the weather patterns, with westerly winds carrying them, proceed as normal. But it is rare when there is no disturbance in the polar vortex.

Anticyclones, The Arch Nemeses of the Polar Vortex

This is when the next characters make their entrance. Anticyclones, created near the equator, begin their northward and southward journeys in the summer, while the vortices are quiet. When the anticyclones reach the pole, they begin to interact with the vortex. These interactions are beyond my ability to understand, let alone communicate. But they are described as the anticyclones and the vortex pushing, dragging, climbing over, crawling under each other even to the point that the vortex might be separated into two or more smaller vortices. All of this activity, which can last for weeks and weeks, takes its toll on the polar vortex. It begins to weaken and to decay.

Anticyclonic Activity Over Austrailia

This Anticyclone, photographed by a NASA satellite over Australia, is spinning counterclockwise as it is the southern hemisphere.  Anticyclones in the northern hemisphere spin clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect.
This Anticyclone, photographed by a NASA satellite over Australia, is spinning counterclockwise as it is the southern hemisphere. Anticyclones in the northern hemisphere spin clockwise due to the Coriolis Effect. | Source

A Weakened Polar Vortex Leads to Colder Temperatures

This is what happened during the winter of 2012 and 2013. The Arctic (northern) vortex was weakened by the anticyclones. I know that the weathermen and ladies tell us that this is a year of a strong polar vortex, but they are speaking of its impact on weather. Extremely and abnormally cold temperatures are associated with a weakened polar vortex.

Walter Robinson, a University of Illinois professor of atmospheric sciences, has this to say about the polar vortex and its impact on weather, “When the vortex is strong, the westerlies descend all the way to Earth’s surface. This carries more air warmed by the ocean onto the land. When the vortex is weak, that’s when the really deep cold occurs.”

So we actually haven’t had a winter with a powerful Arctic/Polar vortex. It has actually been weak. But the effect of a weak vortex has been the shutdown of the westerly winds and the release of extremely cold air and huge amounts of snow.

Stratosphere, Troposphere and Westerlies

Well, our remaining characters sneaked onto the stage without being introduced. The stratosphere is where the polar vortex exists and where its annual battle with anticyclones occurs. The troposphere is where we live and where our weather patterns are carried across the landscape by the prevailing westerly winds.

The Winter of 2014

We are surrounded by a weather machine which has been designed by nature to provide for the needs of this planet. In our human judgement and in our limited understanding, we deem certain things, such as cold temperatures and amazing amounts of snow, to be bad. But these are things over which we have no control. On one hand mankind is able to have a negative impact on Mother Nature, but on the other hand, she seems to be as powerful as ever, bringing us to our knees to cry, “Enough, enough, we’ve had enough of winter, 2014.”

NASA Photo Showing Michigan With More Snow Than Any Other State in the Country as of January 29, 2014

Author's home is in the northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan in Leelanau County.  With 188.1 inches of snow as of January 30, 2014, it has more snow than anyplace else in Michigan.
Author's home is in the northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan in Leelanau County. With 188.1 inches of snow as of January 30, 2014, it has more snow than anyplace else in Michigan. | Source

Cold Weather Jokes: It's So Cold that....

At the request of our good friend and fellow hubber, Eric Dierker, I've added some cold weather jokes so he can vote this hub "funny."

It's so cold that...

"...hitchhikers are holding up pictures of thumbs."

"...the optician is giving away free ice scrapers with every new pair of eyeglasses."

"...pickpockets are sticking their hands in strangers' pockets just to keep them warm."

"...I chipped a tooth on my soup!"

"...if you want to hear what someone is saying, you have to grab a handful of sentences and take them in by the fire."

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    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, Mother Nature does have a way of retaliation. Beware on how you treat her… you did dwell with this explanation of another phenomenon.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Nadine, thanks for reading the article and for sharing it. The main source for my article is listed at the end of the hub. It is a scientific paper that was difficult for me as a laymen to grasp, but after reading it multiple times, I feel I was able to communicate the main points.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      4 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Thank you for your explanations on our freaky weather lately. I still find it a difficult topic to follow but I will share your article on my Facebook and Google+ page. Click interesting!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Yes, thanks. I shouldn't moan. There are many far worse off than we are, just down the road! Hope all's well with you. Ann

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Hi Ann, This winter sounds like it is extreme all around the globe in the northern hemisphere. I'm sitting here waiting for an expected 10 inches of snow followed by ice to start. It should begin around midnight here in Pennsylvania. Stay warm and dry if you can. Spring is coming.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      This is fascinating. I don't know about the snow (up north they have some at the moment) but here it's wet, wet, wet and windy as hell. All around the south-west, west Wales and in the Thames and Severn valleys, there are floods of biblical proportions, some from the sea, some from the rivers, but all tidal. The Jet Stream doesn't help and I guess that's influenced by the Polar Vortex too.

      I'm really fed up with this Winter, so bring on the Spring, my favourite season.

      Great explanations and illustrations here. Another goodie! Ann

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      nighthag, Thanks for reading my article. I'm glad it made sense and added to your understanding. It truly is an awesome world.

    • nighthag profile image

      K.A.E Grove 

      4 years ago from Australia

      a great informing read, thank you for expanding my understanding a little bit more of this fascinating world of ours. well done!

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Ruby, I think there are a lot of people on board with you and your sister. Spring, whenever it arrives, has a lot of expectations to live up to. Thanks for reading.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I couldn't agree more, enough is enough. I was talking on the phone last evening with my sis Mary, her remark, " This is disgusting. " Ha Ha..I learned about polar vortexes from your hub and found it most interesting...

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Jaye, I can't help it. This was a huge winter to miss. The snow shoes are calling, the sand dunes and Lake Michigan are calling, and I can't go. Winter photography is fantastic along the Lake and on the sand dunes. I've got a hub on that particular topic. I'm glad you got to read the jokes. Thanks for coming back for a second go round.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I read the jokes, Chris, and added a "funny" to my vote/feedback. Am I to infer that you're sorry to be missing the Michigan winter while in Philly? My southern mind can't make that leap! Haha.

      Jaye

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Cecile, I'm pleased that you enjoyed the article. l Have a great Sunday.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Frank, This story was fun to research. After the first time through the first article and not understanding a thing about what I had just read, I nearly quit. Then I read the article again and began to grasp a few things. I'm gad I stuck with it. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

    • cecileportilla profile image

      Cecile Portilla 

      4 years ago from West Orange, New Jersey

      Very interesting and informative hub. The next time that I hear the term Polar Vortex on the weather channel I will know exactly what they are referring to.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      this must have been a great article to do research..i but there were a lot of time involved too.. and the jokes took the bite out loved it :)

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      It's good to see you Jaye. Sadly, I am missing the Michigan winter of the century by being in Philadelphia through May. This whole article was a lot of fun to research and to write. Thanks for coming and reading. Be sure to go back and read the jokes I added. I think you probably were reading as I was putting them on.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Eric, the jokes are in place....at the end of the article. Thanks for the suggestion and thanks for reading.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Excellent, informative hub, Chris, and a very timely topic. You impressed me right off the bat by using the plural of "vortex"...and that was before I even read the scientific and meteorological explanations in the article (which I did)!

      Temps here in the Deep South have been much colder than usual this year, beginning in December. (Some past winters here were so mild I never needed a coat; a sweater or light windbreaker was sufficient throughout the season.) We've even had snow flurries this winter and about an inch that actually stayed on the ground for a couple of days. When you consider that southerners consider 50 degrees an exceptionally cold day, well....you can imagine how we're reacting to this weather!

      The worst result is the effect the below-freezing temperatures had on my last two electricity bills and probably my next one. (My heating unit is electric.) I don't know how you folks in the northern climes handle the COST of a long cold winter's fuel, much less coping with how a deep freeze FEELS. When I was younger, cold didn't bother me. Now it does. But I feel like a pathetic wimp to even mention that silly fact after reading the caption beneath that last picture--with all that snow at your home. Good grief! No wonder you learned about polar vortices and the accompanying "cast" of this wintry play!

      Voted Up+++

      Jaye

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      John, down your way the antarctic vortex is much more stable. It does have a tremendous effect on weather, but it remains fairly constant. Up here, ours gets pushed around to the point that it slips down to lower latitudes. So I'm not surprised that you hadn't heard of it before. Actually I had not heard of it before this winter. But that is all we hear about on the weather now. It is interesting though, and I enjoyed researching the article. Thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Could you please add a joke here. I voted up across the board except for funny. I almost giggled at the reference to folks that think they really effect my earth but that was not good enough.

      This was just marvelous and really helped me understand a tough subject. Thank you sir.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very interesting hub. I had no idea of these polar vortexes and how they affected the weather. I hadn't heard of the anti-cyclones either. Very well written. Voted up.

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