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The Polar Vortex: A Cold Phenomenon Explained



  Apr 02, 2024

The Polar Vortex: A Cold Phenomenon Explained



What is the Polar Vortex?

Always Present: The polar vortex is a large area of low pressure and cold air that encircles both the North and South Poles. It exists all year round but is strongest in the winter.

Two Types: There are actually two polar vortices:

Stratospheric Polar Vortex: Located high up in the stratosphere (approximately 10-30 miles altitude).


★ Tropospheric Polar Vortex: Located in the troposphere (where our weather occurs).

★ Jet Stream: The vortex is surrounded by a powerful band of winds called the polar jet stream, which acts as a boundary to keep the cold air contained.

How the Polar Vortex Affects Weather

Typically the polar vortex spins in a relatively regular pattern, keeping the frigid air around the poles. However, sometimes the vortex weakens or becomes distorted. Here's what happens:


★ Weakening or Distortion: The jet stream surrounding the vortex can weaken or become wavy. This can allow the cold air to spill southward into lower latitudes, like the United States and Europe.

★ Arctic Blasts: These southward surges of cold air from the polar vortex are what we often hear about in the news as "polar vortex events" causing extended periods of extreme cold weather.

The Polar Vortex and Climate Change

There is ongoing scientific debate about how climate change is impacting the polar vortex. Some studies suggest that a warming Arctic might lead to a less stable vortex, allowing for more frequent cold air outbreaks in the mid-latitudes. However, the research is complex and there's no clear consensus at this time.


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