Climate change may be cause of polar vortex

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To survive the cold weather, Haven Robinson, a student at Michigan State University, wears multiple layers of thick clothing to remain warm as she walks to class.

However, on Jan. 31, she said she took refuge in her dorm for the day as she knew even the thickest of layers would not protect her from such severe weather.

The Midwest was afflicted by the polar vortex Jan. 29-31. Wind chills broke records as they ranged from 20 to 60 degrees below zero in some areas.  

The cold caused schools to close, buildings to shut down, and even Michigan residents to turn down their thermostats to 65 degrees per the request of Consumers Power to conserve energy.

However, the polar vortex phenomenon is nothing new according to Brett Borchardt, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

“Every year we get these cold outbreaks,” he says, “this year it just happens to be one of the worst.”

But, what exactly is the polar vortex, and why does it curse the United States with freezing temperatures?

Dr. Jeffrey Andresen, professor of meteorology and climatology at Michigan State University, and the state climatologist for Michigan, describes the polar vortex as “arctic weather translocated to a mid-latitude location.”

In other words, it is a pocket of low pressure and cold air from the North Pole that occasionally seeps into the United States.

Polar vortex describes arctic circulation and is derived from scientific literature, but is not frequently used by scientists today, Andresen says.

According to the National Weather Service, “vortex” refers to the counter-clockwise flow of air that keeps the colder air near the poles. The polar vortex exists year-round but becomes stronger during winter.

There is no official explanation for this phenomenon. However, one popular theory links it to the warming of the Arctic and Antarctic.

“With warming temperatures and loss of ice, you can change an area’s physical landscape and how much energy is coming into and leaving the system,” Andresen says. “Some of the hypotheses now indicate that the loss of ice cover is changing the way in which the Earth receives and then emits energy, and is linked with the circulation change of the polar vortex.”

It may be hard to attribute a warming climate with dangerously low temperatures. However, it is important to note the distinction between climate and weather.

“Weather,” Andresen said, “describes short-term behavior of variables like air temperature and wind pressure.”

Climate looks at the same variables over much longer time periods.

In regard to climate change, there is an “unmistakable warming of temperatures,” Andresen says. The record-breaking cold temperatures have been outweighed by record-breaking warm temperatures in areas like Australia.

According to Borchardt, it is very common for weather extremes to occur. But, these extremes do not discredit climate change.

“Some of these changes related to climate change are not what one would expect. They are more complicated,” Andresen says.

The warming climate causes variability in extremes. Along with the cold extremes, we are also experiencing an increase in heat and rainstorm extremes.

However, the theory of linking climate change to the polar vortex still needs more evidence to be proven.


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