Extreme Temperature Diary-January 31, 2019/ Topic: Some Science Behind Counterintuitive Cold From The Polar Vortex

Some Science Behind Counterintuitive Cold From The Polar Vortex

Thursday January 31st… Dear Diary. The main purpose of this ongoing post will be to track United States extreme or record temperatures related to climate change. Any reports I see of ETs will be listed below the main topic of the day. I’ll refer to extreme or record temperatures as ETs (not extraterrestrials).😉

Today is the last day of widespread extreme cold stretching from the Midwest through the Northeast, although some minimums will remain dangerously cold in the area Saturday morning. I’m estimating that somewhere between 500 to 1000 record lows were set in association with this Arctic outbreak the last few days of January. You may ask, how can record cold temperatures be related to climate change? Trying to answer this question scientifically is on the cutting edge of new research I must admit, but I’ll give this my best shot using some recently posted articles.

First, what is the polar vortex, and why did what I personally will refer to as an extension of the thing affect the United States? We can take a look at this rather neat animation showing how a cold pocket, which was the culprit for the cold weather, moved from northern Canada into the Midwest around the polar vortex:

For a good explanation on how the polar vortex affected the U.S. this go round watch Bob Henson’s video:

I saw this graphic, which is a perfect explainer of how warm air intrusions from lower latitudes can displace pieces, if you will, of the polar vortex advecting very cold air southward, as was the case this week in the United States: 


Quoting Stephen Johnson’s article:

A polar vortex event

The frigid temperatures are caused by a mass of cold air that leaked from the polar vortex in the Arctic Circle. The polar vortex is an area of cold, low-pressure air that swirls in the stratosphere above Earth’s North and South poles. When it’s strong, the polar vortex swirls in a regular pattern above the Arctic Circle, contained in part by a strong jet stream that keeps the cold air up north and the warm air down south.

But sometimes the winds that power the polar vortex weaken, resulting in a destabilized jet stream that shoots cold air to the south – what’s known as a polar vortex event.

Although the polar vortex isn’t new, scientists still aren’t exactly sure what factors destabilize it and cause these extreme weather events. In recent years, however, some climate scientists have suggested that global warming might be causing disruptions above the Arctic.

Many other articles came out trying to link the current cold outbreak with global warming this week. Again, this is cutting edge science, so the jury is still out, but I’ll try to post as much reliable expertise as comes across my radar in the future. Here are some that were posted in the last few days with links:

One of the foremost experts in the field of jet stream research and the associated polar vortex is Dr. Jennifer Francis. Here are her thoughts:

In my experience since the 1990s via my surface record research instances of record cold are diminishing across the planet contrary to what you might see in some articles written this week. Yes, I get that the jet stream is being affected by carbon pollution producing weird looking undulations and gyrations, but are polar vortex lobes increasing the number of record lows and the duration of cold outbreaks? Yes, since the turn of the century we are seeing more of these closed lows at fairly low latitudes, but are these temporarily putting a halt to global warming overall? I think not.

Of course, as long as I am able, I’ll keep tabs statistically on how climate change in association with extreme cold goes.


Here is some more climate and weather news from Thursday:

Here are some of today’s chilly “ETs:”



At least four locations with long-term periods of record tied or set all-time record lows on Wednesday and Thursday, January 30-31:

  • –33°F in Moline, Illinois, shattered the all-time record low of –28°F from Feb. 3, 1996 on Thursday, in records dating to 1874. (The all-time low from 1996 was actually broken just before midnight on Wednesday night, with temperatures dropping further early Thursday.)
  • –31°F in Rockford, Illinois, on Thursday beat the previous record of –27°F from Jan. 10, 1982, in records dating to 1893.
  • –30°F in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday beat the previous all-time record of –29°F from Jan. 15, 2009, in records dating to 1893.
  • –43°F northwest of Mather, Wisconsin, on Wednesday tied the all-time low from Jan. 30, 1951, in records dating to 1903.

According to weather records expert Maximiliano Herrera, who tracks all-time heat and cold records for thousands of major stations globally with a 40-year plus period of record, the three all-time cold records set (not tied) Thursday morning—in Rockford, Moline, and Cedar Rapids—are the first such records globally in 2019. We’ve never gone this deep into January without an all-time cold record being set since global record-keeping began, says Herrera. In contrast, in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is summer, January 2019 has seen two nations or territories and 33 stations set their all-time heat records.

(As usual, this will be a fluid post in which more information gets added during the day as it crosses my radar, crediting all who have put it on-line. Items will be archived on this site for posterity.)

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The Climate Guy

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