Polar Vortex is an Omen of Weather Extremes to Come

Frigid Arctic weather is descending upon millions of Americans. Michigan, along with other states, has declared a state of emergencies. Schools are closed, mail delivery has been cancelled, businesses have closed or reduced their hours and DTE is running low on precious natural gas.

The media is driving home the dangers of frostbite in as little as 5 minutes and the need to layer up and stay safe. And as always in extremely cold temperatures, our own Hell, MI, gets regional and even national attention for “freezing over.” H-yuck, h-yuck.

It is little wonder that people may be wondering how things can be so cold when the planet is supposed to be experiencing global warming. President Trump tweeted Monday:

While Trump’s tweet could be tongue-in-cheek jab at making his critic’s heads explode, the fact is that global warming hasn’t left us.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responded Tuesday with a tweet of their own:

“Global warming” is something of a misnomer and is being replaced by the more accurate and encompassing “climate change.” Climate change is making things warmer, but also creating more extremes such as the current polar vortex.

“Climate Change” Explained:

  • Weather is short-term changes in the atmosphere.
  • Climate is the average weather over time.
  • Scientists agree that long term, man-made climate disruption as with the increasing release of CO2 emissions, can multiply and intensify extreme weather events.

The Cause of “Climate Change”:

  • Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.
  • Carbon dioxide traps heat and warms the planet, particularly the weather-creating oceans.
  • CO2 levels have risen from 280 parts per million in the late 1800s to 410 parts per million last year.

How It Looks in the Real World

Extra heat in the oceans and atmosphere can cause more intense storms since they get their strength from heat and moisture. The frequency and strength of natural disasters such as hurricanes and flooding rains is expected to grow. It’s not just the creation of storms, climate change affects the volatility of weather.
Last year’s Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, CA, was the world’s costliest natural disaster of 2018.  Even as a swath of frigid air known as the polar vortex holds the United States in its icy grip this week, Australia endures record heat that has touched off devastating fires on the island of Tasmania.

Map showing lobe of polar air reaching down from Arctic. Photo: Global News, Canada
While it is too early to determine whether this week’s Arctic blast has anything to do with climate change, there is emerging research that shows it triggers weather extremes, including temperature. Years of record-keeping show that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, as heat-reflecting ice is replaced with heat-absorbing open ocean waters, intensifying this cycle.

One theory explaining our current record-breaking cold is that changes in the jet stream that otherwise holds the polar vortex over the Arctic, allow lobes of frigid cold to descend farther south, as happened this week.

It is for these reasons that scientists maintain that this week’s frigid weather followed by next week’s rapid warm-up is proof of changing climate and an omen of weather extremes to come.

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