BRRRR – Global Warming Could Cause Polar Vortex to Blast the U.S. With Cold Air

This year’s weak polar vortex Graphic: NOAA

Above the North Pole, a polar vortex — a swirling flurry of cold air — could cause weeks of frigid weather in the Eastern United States, Northern Europe, and East Asia according to forecasters. The polar vortex is acting strangely, doing a “shimmying” motion that will make the rest of the winter much colder and snowier.  Europe is already feeling the cold – Madrid is 6.9 degrees colder than usual.  As a result, snow blanketed Spain over the weekend, dumping nearly two feet of snow on Madrid — the most snow in the last 50 years there.

Why this Matters:  While many associate global warming with hotter weather, climate change can also cause harsher, more snowy winters.  The snowy weather caused by this polar vortex may be the result of increasing temperatures in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming up more quickly than any region in the world, and the ice-cover there is shrinking. In September and December of last year, the Arctic sea-ice cover was depleted to its second-lowest and third-lowest minimum on record for Septembers and Decembers respectively.

What happened to the polar vortex this year?

The polar vortex is an area of low pressure above the Arctic, filled with frigid, circulating air. Though the polar vortex usually stays put up north, in the winter, the jet stream of air that keeps the polar vortex in place can dwindle, which pushes the cold air south. Less Arctic sea-ice allows more moisture from the sea to evaporate and travel inland over Siberia. As this moisture becomes snow, it reflects heat back into space and makes Siberia even colder. This reflected heat can damage a thermal band in the troposphere over Eurasia, setting the polar vortex loose, which can then give the eastern U.S, Northern Europe, and East Asia colder winters.  A big factor in disrupting the polar vortex is sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) events, which happen when large atmospheric waves reach into the stratosphere and interfere with the polar vortex. This can push it off-course, slow it down, or make it heat up as much as 90 degrees within a few days.

Right now, we’re in a big SSW, due in part to the weather conditions that result from melting ice in the Arctic. A high-pressure system over the North Atlantic and northern Europe/Asia and a low-pressure system over the North Pacific disrupted the stratosphere, the home of the polar vortex.  On January 5, we saw some disturbances in the polar vortex’s usual course — the vortex’s counter-clockwise winds reversed direction, the vortex began to split, and the vortex strayed from the North Pole toward Europe and the North Atlantic.  It’s unclear whether this means snowstorms or an influx of cold air, but these conditions could persist for 4-6 weeks, leaving the Northeast in a particularly long winter.

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