Blog now public & it's a big one! Hard to keep up with all the #PolarVortex tap dancing in the coming days. I try my very best & as I discuss lots of potential of #winter weather in the coming weeks. Had to use the Vulcan mind meld to make sense of it all: https://t.co/Gg8N2KIjJS pic.twitter.com/dbI6a1I1Rr— Judah Cohen (@judah47) January 3, 2024
How is the Polar Vortex Linked to Climate Change?
By Olivia Rosane Updated February 16, 2021 01:24PM EST
Fact checked by Haley Mast
For the Central and Eastern United States, this has been a particularly brutal winter. Fargo, North Dakota has seen sub-zero temperatures since February 5, The Washington Post reported, while New York City has gotten hit with around 22 inches of snow since Jan. 31.
And it isn’t letting up any time soon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that temperatures in many parts of the lower 48 states will be 25 to 45 degrees below normal through Wednesday and that many places will see record lows before that date.1 The cold has extended as far south as Texas. Over the weekend and into Monday, an “unprecedented” winter storm has left millions without power in Texas and is creating chaos across a wide path of the central and southern states due to what the National Weather Service has called an “impressive onslaught of wicked wintry weather.”2
Climate deniers have often used cold winter weather to argue against the idea that industrial society is heating the planet through the burning of fossil fuels. In one infamous example, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to argue against the reality of global warming.
Such arguments fundamentally confuse weather (temporary fluctuations) and climate (long-term trends).3 But, counterintuitively, extreme wintry weather can actually be a sign of climate change.
For one thing, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which makes heavy precipitation more likely. When the temperature is cold enough, that precipitation can fall as snow instead of rain.4
“If you can get a moisture source and these storms come through, they are more likely to have more intense precipitation,” Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science and a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Treehugger in an interview.
The other reason is more complicated and involves the phenomenon forecasters have come to refer to as the polar vortex.
The Polar Vortex Descends
Normally, the polar vortex swirls from west to east in the stratosphere above the Earth’s poles, keeping cold air over the Arctic and Antarctica.5 At the same time, the jet stream also circulates, keeping warm air to its south and cold air to its north.
Sometimes in the winter, the Arctic stratosphere will heat up through an event known as a Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW).6 This causes the winds keeping the polar vortex in place to weaken or even reverse, which in turn weakens the jet stream, making it wavier. The cold Arctic air is then brought down into the mid-latitudes.
“Sometimes we use the analogy of when you open up a refrigerator door,” Ekwurzel explained, “and the cold air that’s in the refrigerator, that’s contained in there, escapes, and then the warm air in the room goes into the refrigerator.”
So what does this have to do with climate change? The polar vortex itself is not a new phenomenon, and NOAA says the term likely originated in 1853. But the Arctic has been warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet on average, and a growing body of observational research links this Arctic warming with extreme winter weather in Eurasia and North America, which has in fact increased in the past two decades7.8
A 2018 paper found that extreme cold and snowfall in the eastern U.S. were more common when the Arctic was warmest.9 Another 2020 study found that the melting of sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas was associated with a weaker polar vortex in mid-January to late-February, which was typically displaced over Eurasia.10 At the same time, sea ice melt near Greenland and eastern Canada was associated with a weaker polar vortex from December to early February, that was displaced over Europe.
This trend is a problem for both the U.S. and Europe, and the Arctic itself. So far this winter, the mid-latitudes have seen three major disruptions, Ekwurzel explained.
- In December, a historic nor’easter coincided with record Siberian high temperatures, which was followed by record snowfall in Madrid in early January.
- In late January, another nor’easter blasted the northeastern U.S., breaking a 113-year-old snowfall record in one Pennsylvania town.
- The current descent of the polar vortex over much of the lower 48 states, accompanied by similarly cold temperatures in Europe.
However, these types of swings have negative consequences in the far North as well, where warmer than average temperatures make it harder for communities who rely on sea ice and snowpack for hunting and transportation. Ekwurzel used to study the Arctic ocean, and, during that time, heard stories of people who had crossed an icy river to hunt Caribou only to be stranded on the other side when it melted unexpectedly.
“No matter where you are in the Northern hemisphere, the extreme temperatures are disrupting your normal life and what you’re used to on a scale that wasn’t possible before,” Ekwurzel said.
There is some debate within the scientific community as to whether warmer Arctic temperatures are really causing cold weather events further south, or whether they are merely both occurring at the same time. One reason is that climate models do not show as strong a relationship between the two events, if they show one at all.
“The main reason for the disagreement among climate scientists is because the observations are strongly suggestive of a causal link and the models suggest there is no link. If the models validated or confirmed the arguments put forth by analyzing the observations, there would be greater consensus,” atmospheric scientist Judah Cohen said in a Carbon Brief Q&A explaining the debate.11
However, Ekwurzel said that models had also failed to predict the extent of Arctic warming. The problem is that it is a challenge for scientists to accurately model a climate that is so rapidly changing, meaning it is possible their models may have missed an important factor.
“The past is not our guide to the future, or today,” Ekwurzel said.
More on today’s main subject:
We've got plenty of work to do in the short term so not getting ahead of ourselves, but this is one of the craziest looks I can ever recall (late next week)— Eric Fisher (@ericfisher) January 3, 2024
Amped to the max. Will be interesting to see how this upcoming 10-day stretch goes pic.twitter.com/dzb1KFJPd0
Here are more “ET’s” recorded from around the planet the last couple of days, their consequences, and some extreme temperature outlooks, as well as any extreme precipitation reports:
RECORD COLD— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
After so many heat records, 2024 also starts with a harsh cold spell in Scandinavia.
with -43.6C Kvikkjokk just broke its all time lowest temperature.
It's also the lowest temperature in January in Sweden since the record 1999 cold spell. https://t.co/PCTvB2ZCky
Records no stop allover the tropics like never before.— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
Two islands, one in the Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean had their hottest days in history both with exact 35.0C:
Taro Island SOLOMON ISLANDS
Tromelin Island FRENCH SOUTHERN TERRITORY https://t.co/ZAQVnx9Ddi
Here is some brand-new December and 2023 climatology:
December 2023 in Alaska had normal temperature vs 1991-2020 base.— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
The North Slope,eastern Interior Southeast warmer than normal while SW and Southcentral were cooler than normal.
Map and data by Rick Thoman. pic.twitter.com/6NO7bEt1gK
December 2023 in the United Kingdom had an average temperature of 5.8C ,+1.6C above normal.— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
Average precipitation was 188.6mm ,+48% above normal.
2023 as a whole had an average temperature of 9.97C, +0.83C above normal and was the SECOND warmest year on record. https://t.co/Knv2uOXbHY
#ClimateCrisis— Prof. Peter Strachan (@ProfStrachan) January 3, 2024
2023 was UK’s second-hottest year on record
"Such a warm year would have occurred once in 500 years without global heating, Met Office scientists say"#ClimateEmergency
December 2023 in #Norway was very cold and ended with a temperature anomaly of 3.2C below normal ranging from 0C to -7C.(left map).— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
It was mostly drier than normal (right map).
Maps are credit of @Meteorologene pic.twitter.com/65M1fUVAYK
December 2023 in #Estonia was also cold:— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
Average temperature was -2.5C which is 1.5C below normal.
Average amount of precipitation was 47 mm, which is 88% of the norm (long-term average 53 mm). pic.twitter.com/PfFNg4cbww
December 2023 in South Korea had an average temperature of +2.4C,+1.3C above normal (left map).— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
2023 as a whole was a record year:
With an average temperature of 13.7C and an anomaly of +1.2C vs. 1991-2020 it was the hottest year on record (right map)
Maps are credit of KMA. pic.twitter.com/kBsac7WtoP
December 2023 in Hong Kong was very dry.— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) January 3, 2024
Average temperature was 19.1C ,0.9C above normal.
Total rainfall was just 0.9mm ,3% of normal.
See graph with complete statistics courtesy of Hong Kong Observatory. pic.twitter.com/Ed1WNd9ma6
Here is More Climate and News from Wednesday:
Cyclone Alvaro's impact on Madagascar on January 1 and 2, 2024, with over 4,500 victims, highlights the growing importance of #EarlyWarningForAll.— World Meteorological Organization (@WMO) January 3, 2024
📷 @CopernicusEU Sentinel-3 satellites on 1 January 2024, shows the cyclone in the Mozambique Channel.
🔗 https://t.co/PCPl3L0xi2 pic.twitter.com/iMd0rhzbIZ
Big oil ‘fully owned the villain role’ in 2023, the hottest year ever recorded https://t.co/OjDYMUU0g7— Guardian Environment (@guardianeco) January 3, 2024
Updated now to include 2023 value (red circle–source: https://t.co/1Xe2wdPxvh).— Prof Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) January 3, 2024
No, we didn't exceed 1.5C in 2023.
No, it's not a single (El Nino-boosted) year but trend line that matters.
And no, we're not yet committed to 1.5C, but emissions have to come down dramatically. https://t.co/rcwJ5vRuC5 pic.twitter.com/ddUNKgZT3e
I looks like I won't be able to properly close out 2023 using ERA5 data until January 6th.— Prof. Eliot Jacobson (@EliotJacobson) January 3, 2024
As of Dec. 28th, 2023 is 1.48°C above the 1850-1900 IPCC baseline. December, in particular, is about to set a new monthly record, at 1.76°C over the baseline. And the 28th is 1.97°C over. pic.twitter.com/p3n1XKQ0O6
Last month averaged the 2nd lowest #Antarctic sea ice extent on record for the month of December.— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) January 3, 2024
This was 1,740,000 km² below the 1981-2010 average. Data from @NSIDC at https://t.co/aUqFYm6GYc pic.twitter.com/oQLY2YlGpF
From a climatological standpoint, 2023 has objectively been an exceptionally hot year. It was basically all about charting uncharted territory and reaching extremely concerning milestones. It almost feels like we collectively fast-forwarded by a decade in 2023. pic.twitter.com/a9IqZsxANn— Nahel Belgherze (@WxNB_) January 3, 2024
"We find that even in this ambitious scenario, the global North would overshoot its share of the 1.5 °C carbon budget by a factor of three, appropriating half of the global South’s share in the process." https://t.co/y13PprVHNV— David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells) January 3, 2024
“In my 3 decade-long career being a weather forecaster, and now Chief Meteorologist and Climate Specialist, I have never observed so many of Earth’s vital signs blinking red.” https://t.co/xjmIsOAu0f— Mike Hudema (@MikeHudema) January 3, 2024
We're in a climate emergency, there is no time to wait. #ActOnClimate#climate pic.twitter.com/9J9RA3xRCL
Today’s News on Sustainable Energy, Traditional Polluting Energy from Fossil Fuel, and the Green Revolution:
The rise of #RenewableEnergy is a reason to be hopeful in 2024— Prof. Peter Strachan (@ProfStrachan) January 3, 2024
"Solar and wind power are now by far the cheapest source of new electricity generation, both globally and in the U.S., and those trends are set to continue"#EnergyTransition@mzjacobsonhttps://t.co/8mbH4FyFCv
How heat pumps of the 1800s are becoming the technology of the future— GO GREEN (@ECOWARRIORSS) January 3, 2024
The magic of a heat pump is that it can move multiple kilowatt-hours of heat for each kWh of electricity it uses.
Direct subsidies to home owners would be a big hit to Big Oil https://t.co/9qj1nFaBcC pic.twitter.com/hmYpqAgbkI
Six Flags is going solar. It's building a 12.37-megawatt solar carport. Not only will it completely power the park, but it will provide shade for vehicles as well.— Mike Hudema (@MikeHudema) January 3, 2024
Shouldn't every parking lot get a solar upgrade? #ActOnClimate#climate #energy #renewables pic.twitter.com/FnfZJVDNPq
Germany added 14GW of solar capacity in 2023, with the residential segment accounting for nearly half of the new additions. https://t.co/kyrTmA01Z1— Dr Paul Dorfman (@dorfman_p) January 3, 2024
Harvesting the Sun— Prof. Peter Strachan (@ProfStrachan) January 3, 2024
"Solar energy now provides some of the cheapest electricity humanity has ever seen, and the costs are continuing to plummet with deployment"#RenewableEnergy https://t.co/0TASETEFSL via @ConversationUK
BIG CARMAKERS LOBBIED UK TO WEAKEN OR DELAY ELECTRIC CAR RULES— Bill McGuire (@ProfBillMcGuire) January 3, 2024
This is so unsurprising, it is barely even news.https://t.co/MuRi198lwq
More from the Weather Department:
The first of several INTENSE cross country storms!!! Tag your friends/family to give them the heads-up! https://t.co/V8rCA3Wroo— Stephanie Abrams (@StephanieAbrams) January 3, 2024
Storm Henk wreaked havoc in the London area on Tuesday, causing scaffolding to fall near pedestrians, a car narrowly avoiding a falling tree, and a toppled Christmas tree in central London. pic.twitter.com/ZiyVCI4HIM— AccuWeather (@accuweather) January 3, 2024
This winter season so far, snowfall compared to the 15-year average has been below normal in most places. This could change over the next week or two, with a few upcoming snowy storm systems likely for parts of the Lower 48! pic.twitter.com/hALFJLq5jy— NWS Weather Prediction Center (@NWSWPC) January 3, 2024
This year's Sierra Nevada snowpack is at its lowest level in a decade, but upcoming storms in the West could bring much-needed rain and snow to the region. pic.twitter.com/oPWrLGdBjf— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) January 3, 2024
Snowpack in CO is close to historic low, but situation in CA is worse. Send snow please. pic.twitter.com/YRZj6G7Nas— Jonathan Overpeck (@GreatLakesPeck) January 3, 2024
Early next week storm looking huge for eastern US. One impact could be along the Florida west coast (again). GFS/EURO close right now on timing of storm line… and the strongest winds. Both showing 30-40 sustained with gusts 40-50 range. Low tide is early AM so tides will be… pic.twitter.com/fahkXYZ05x— Mike's Weather Page (@tropicalupdate) January 3, 2024
The Bothnian Bay is now completely frozen. The last time the bay froze this early was in winter 2011.— Mika Rantanen (@mikarantane) January 3, 2024
The ice cover in the Baltic Sea is now the widest it has been in 13 years – the last winters with more ice at this time of year were 2010 and 2011.https://t.co/lslomCgklh pic.twitter.com/1KlqWcHYq9
More on the Environment and Nature:
Your 'moment of doom' for Jan. 3, 2023 ~ Leave it to beavers.— Prof. Eliot Jacobson (@EliotJacobson) January 3, 2024
"in the Arctic tundra of Alaska alone, the number of beaver ponds on streams have doubled to at least 12,000 in the past 20 years."https://t.co/RTejg6Kjkq
The urgency of reforestation worldwide:— Green is a mission (@Greenisamissio1) January 3, 2024
Forest restoration, when implemented appropriately, helps restore habitats and ecosystems, create jobs and income and is an effective nature-based solution to climate change.💚🌿🌱☘️🌳🌲🍀💚 pic.twitter.com/fFykonlfyA
In Manhattan, a new waterside park will function as a berm, keeping floodwaters from city streets.— Yale Environment 360 (@YaleE360) January 3, 2024
The park is part of a massive, Dutch-inspired flood control project aimed at protecting the city against rising seas.https://t.co/xtmHyGf23b
More on Other Science and the Beauty of Earth and this Universe:
The Noto Peninsula earthquake has an exceptionally high number of aftershocks compared to past major earthquakes in Japan. JMA says 219 aftershocks of M3.5 or higher were observed over 18 hours after the initial earthquake.— Sayaka Mori (@sayakasofiamori) January 3, 2024
Rain is falling now, raising the risk of landslides. pic.twitter.com/5UPu9Gxa1T
Once again a short virtual stop to relax, watch and think. I wish you all a blessed rest of the day with joy, kindness and respect for all of us and for nature.❤️💙💚🌿🌱☘️🌳🌲🍀💚 pic.twitter.com/hLxjtxuC3W— Green is a mission (@Greenisamissio1) January 3, 2024