What's the Polar Vortex?

People all over the world, regardless of race, age, location, or culture all have one thing they can always talk about, the weather.  Our day to day world is always subject to changes in the weather.  Sometimes weather produces violent storms, catastrophic gusts of winds, or sudden extreme temperature changes. For example, recently the United States seems to have experienced an extreme bout of arctic cold.  So, let's get into some weather related science.  What is the polar vortex?

 

The weather here on Earth is a constantly changing and shifting situation and there's no better example than the weather phenomenon of early 2014 that popularized itself as the Polar Vortex. Well, the polar vortex didn't just happen, it's a constantly fluctuating system that just happened to be more pronounced due to its extreme southern reach.  This shift in the weather pattern has caused some pretty remarkable temperatures, but how does this happen?  Like many science related stories, this one too starts with our amazing sun.  The sun's rays strike down on our planet at varying intensities based on our tilt.  Depending on where you are you will experience different weather due to the intensity of the sun's rays.  These regions of varying intensities create bands of circulation known as cells.  The Hadley cells hug the warm equatorial region, the poles hold the cold polar-cells, and the rest are mid-latitude cells.  These bands of circulation dictate a lot of the weather characteristics of the region. 

 

Well, occasionally, for a myriad of reasons, there is a sudden and sometimes extreme shift among the three bands.  Seeing as how these bands have nowhere else to go, they're on this planet after all, they have to adjust and move around when these changes happen.  Meaning, a shift in one region does not just impact that region, but this is a global change.  If a part of the cold polar cell dips down into the mid-latitude region then parts of the mid-latitude region are displaced.  This causes sudden extreme changes in regions that are usually not used to them.  A piece of the polar cell dipping down means colder temperatures for us, but warmer for some other places since the Earth is always trying to naturally balance its temperature.  

 

 

These changes can obviously have some pretty extreme repercussions.  2014 experienced a lot of these extremes, but in the past these arctic invasions have been much stronger.  For example, in 1977, one of the most extreme southern trips the polar cell made to Virginia froze the Chesapeake Bay!  Regions right on the coast experienced temperatures as low as 5 degrees! Again, just because we got cold does not mean the entire world gets cold, this simply means the weather patterns are trying to balance things out and in the process bring a different temperature experience to the cities and towns on the ground below.  Perhaps it forced us to stay in more than we may have wanted this winter, but this weather fluctuation is a great reminder that the sky above us very much connects the whole planet and we're all in this together. A change here can impact the rest of the world, for better or for worse.  

 

As the Earth continues its trip around the sun, the tilt changes and so do the average temperatures expected in this region.  For now the cold air still comes back to visit us and with the impact of the polar cells this has been a very cold winter.  With that said, this was still reported as the 4th warmest January for our planet.  Clearly not every place has been as cold as the polar air frosted this part of the world here in Virginia.  Meteorologists have declared this as the most severe winter in two decades, meanwhile school children have declared this as THE BEST THING EVER!!!